Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, on sabbatical from Foreign Policy magazine.
The Burmese military’s brutal crackdown on the country’s Rohingya minority has triggered a massive humanitarian catastrophe. By now, roughly 480,000 Rohingya have fled across the border into neighboring Bangladesh since Aug. 25, desperate to escape the violence (which the Burmese government characterizes as a counterinsurgency campaign in response to attacks by Rohingya militants).
The United States, Europe and global institutions have responded with fairly uniform condemnation. Within the past few weeks, Vice President Pence, British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson and top U.N. human rights official Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein have all publicly decried the Burmese government’s actions.
One country, however, has expressed unwavering public support for the country and its policies. China supports Burma’s efforts to “uphold peace and stability,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said on Sept. 12. That same week, to show support for the regime, Beijing opened a liaison office in Naypyidaw, the capital — a step other powerful nations have been reluctant to take because of the city’s isolation and its association with the former ruling junta.
And after the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres urged Burma to stop persecuting the Rohingya, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson reminded her audience that Burma “is a friendly and close neighbor of China” and added that “the Chinese side sincerely hopes that the Rakhine state can restore stability as soon as possible and the local people can live a normal life again.” (Beijing did also say it will send humanitarian aid to Bangladesh).
China’s support torpedoes the possibility of a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning or imposing sanctions on Burma. In March, China vetoed a statement expressing concern about violence against the Rohingya. On Thursday, the Security Council is meeting to discuss the situation in Burma. Beijing will almost certainly water down any statement — assuming it allows the meeting to happen in the first place. During the U.N. General Assembly, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Guterres that China “understands and supports” Burma’s efforts to protect its security.
Burma’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, seems happy to have Beijing on her side. In April, on the occasion of her third official visit to China, the Burmese journalist Aung Zaw wrote, “It is ironic that Burma’s civilian government led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi continues to rely on China to avoid scrutiny of human rights by the UN.”
China has been a veto-casting member of the U.N. Security Council since 1971. What’s different now is that China’s wealth and influence make it much easier for Burma to ignore Western censure. China is by far Burma’s largest trading partner, and China’s growing global legitimacy means that Burma is far less likely to feel isolated as long as it has Beijing’s support.
It’s not just Burma. As China continues to grow in power and influence, it’s giving cover to a range of countries that scorn human rights. It can blunt criticism of their actions in international bodies and offer economic support that insulates them from Western pressure. This month, the president of Iran’s central bank announced that a Chinese state-owned investment firm had provided a $10 billion credit line for Iranian banks, taking the bite out of sanctions and decreasing Tehran’s need to cooperate with President Trump. And despite Beijing’s willingness to sign on to increasingly harsh U.N. sanctions, China protects North Korea. Roughly 90 percent of that country’s trade goes through China.
This trend will likely only deepen as China’s massive global trade strategy, “One Belt, One Road,” continues to expand, and as Trump continues to alienate nations around the world.
Beijing is increasingly empowering authoritarian-minded leaders in Asia. The small nation of Cambodia, ruled since 1985 by Hun Sen, is growing increasingly repressive. This month, for example, Phnom Penh ordered the arrest of the country’s main opposition leader, Kem Sokha, on spurious charges of treason. Asked about the arrest, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said China “supports the Cambodian government’s effort to protect national security and stability.”
Another place to watch is the brutally corrupt nation of Zimbabwe. When I visited in July, some citizens told me privately that they worried civil war would break out after the death of longtime president Robert Mugabe, an ailing 93-year-old who has yet to publicly name a successor. Will Beijing provide cover for the country if it slides into chaos following Mugabe’s death? Probably. When meeting with Mugabe in January, Xi said China “will continue to support how Zimbabwe safeguards its national sovereignty, security and development interests.”
There is a cost, of course. Countries that accept Chinese political support can also find themselves economically beholden to China. Still, it can seem like a less onerous burden than maintaining global standards of decency.
“Burma leaders do not need to sweat,” the Burmese website the Irawaddy proclaimed early this month. “They have a powerful friend: China.” It’s true with Burma, and it may soon be true with many other countries around the world.