China struggles to maintain ties to its past, without jeopardizing its future

A four-day visit to China by Myanmar’s military junta leader Than Shwe in early September has raised questions about the future of relations between these two nations. After all, when a brutal military dictator in Asia needs support, it can often be found within the borders of one of the world’s foremost economic powers.

This begs the question that, as arguably the world’s next superpower, how is China to balance its ties between the Western world, which supplies and trades with it, and the poor yet resource-rich dictatorships it has been propping up for years.

When “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il of North Korea visited China in late August, once again the Chinese government had little comment on the visit. These official visits by some of the world’s most brutal and secretive leaders highlight the contrast between China’s past and its future ambitions.

Once known for its crackdowns on protesters and dissidents, China has attempted to distance itself from its former image as a repressive communist nation. With major events such as the Shanghai Expo and Beijing Olympics, the Chinese regime has attempted to craft an image of itself as a forward thinking economic powerhouse.

However, while China has opened up to the West, it maintains close ties with some of the world’s most unpopular nations. Myanmar’s brutal government crackdowns on democratic movements and North Korea’s totalitarian state help cement their statuses as two of the most antagonistic nations in the world.

The opposing ambitions of China are occasionally put on display. Antics such as North Korea’s back and forth stance with the West on nuclear arms leave China trying to placate opposite sides, while remaining diplomatic with both. Though China is bound to the North Korean regime through their longstanding ties, they must also recognize the consequences of a standoff against their trading partners.

The same could be said for China’s support of Myanmar, whose imprisonment of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of pro-democracy movements draws regular criticism from the UN.

Though Myanmar and North Korea are some of the world’s most secretive nations, neither is very wealthy. As Asia’s economic powerhouse, it is China they seek out when in need of help both for economic and political needs. Through these dependent relationships, China has become caught in a crossroads between its past and its future.

This delicate balancing act between regimes they have supported for years and the potential investment of Western powers remains a crucial standoff in Chinese foreign relations. Does China want to be the country that we saw during the Beijing Games, welcoming the world with open arms? Or does it want to be the repressive dictatorship known for censoring the Internet and responding to civilian dissent with military and police brutality?

This seesaw between its past and its ambitions for the future will be a defining factor in the future of Chinese foreign relations. Until a clearer path is taken, we will continue to see a China stuck between the tradition of brutal dictatorships and the future goal of a role as the world’s foremost economic power.

//Ryan Bernard

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