China makes quiet push for Burmese peace

China has secretly urged Burma’s military rulers to solve the crisis that is provoking continuing street demonstrations by thousands of people.

Publicly Beijing said it would keep its usual hands-off approach toward its neighbour, but diplomats said it has been using behind-the-scenes approaches.

A senior Chinese official asked the Burmese junta this month to solve their differences with opposition democratic forces. It also arranged a low-key meeting in Beijing between Burma and US State Department envoys to discuss releasing Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and leader of Burma’s democratic opposition who is under house arrest.

For China, Burma’s staunchest diplomatic protector, largest trading partner and a leading investor, the shift is crucial.

Asian and Western diplomats in Beijing and Southeast Asia say China’s influence in Burma could be key in stopping the junta from turning to violence.

“China has been working to convey the concerns of the international community to the Burmese government, ”one Western diplomat in Beijing said. “But it could definitely do more to apply pressure.”

However, diplomats and experts cautioned that China’s communist leaders may not be willing to push harder.

Burma’s junta has resisted economic sanctions from the West, and past appeals from Southeast Asian neighbours and the UN.

Economically booming China has filled the diplomatic and economic vacuum, eying Burma as a strategic path to the Indian Ocean and investing in its teak forests and its gas and mineral fields – and picking up an ally.

Burma “was a vassal state of China’s for centuries, and it’s fast reverting to that status,” said Sean Turnell, an economist and Burma expert at Australia’s Macquarie University.

China protected Burma from scrutiny and sanction in the UN Security Council earlier this year.

China’s own deep political and economic interests in Burma are now spurring it to act, diplomats and experts said. With next year’s Beijing Olympics already bringing China higher international scrutiny, Chinese leaders will not want to be associated with another repressive, unpopular regime.

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