There’s a reason nobody is talking about a military “regime change” in Burma, but it’s not the reason David Warren writes about here. Warren says,

The Burmese regime could hardly survive a direct military strike. … But this would require a West assured of its own ideals and principles, generous and willing to make sacrifices for them; a West not debilitated by layer upon layer of “politically-correct” self-doubt. And that simply isn’t on the table.

Actually, son, there are two reasons no one is going to invade Burma to overthrow the junta. The first reason is that Burma shares a 2,000 kilometer border with China, and there are two things to keep in mind about China:

1. China has the largest standing army in the world.

2. China is holding a big honking chunk of U.S. debt. Wikipedia:

The country holding the most U.S. debt is Japan which held $612.3 billion at the end of the first quarter of 2007. The People’s Republic of China holds the second most U.S. debt, ending the first quarter of 2007 with over $1.2 trillion in total foreign reserves, of which about $420.2 billion are U.S. Treasury securities.[

The West is not dithering because of some political neurosis, presenting as “layer upon layer of ‘politically-correct’ self-doubt.” The West is hamstrung regarding Burma because the West is afraid of what China might do.

In the event of an armed invasion of Burma by western forces to effect “regime change,” I don’t know that China would counterattack. But China could hurt us in a lot of other ways.

Recently Ambrose Evans-Pritchard wrote at The Telegraph (August 8, 2007):

The Chinese government has begun a concerted campaign of economic threats against the United States, hinting that it may liquidate its vast holding of US treasuries if Washington imposes trade sanctions to force a yuan revaluation.

Two officials at leading Communist Party bodies have given interviews in recent days warning – for the first time – that Beijing may use its $1.33 trillion (£658bn) of foreign reserves as a political weapon to counter pressure from the US Congress.

Shifts in Chinese policy are often announced through key think tanks and academies.

Described as China’s “nuclear option” in the state media, such action could trigger a dollar crash at a time when the US currency is already breaking down through historic support levels.

It would also cause a spike in US bond yields, hammering the US housing market and perhaps tipping the economy into recession. It is estimated that China holds over $900bn in a mix of US bonds.

In effect, the Chinese are underwriting Bush’s tax cuts. And I believe China has more leverage over us than we have over them.

There’s a fascinating analysis by Lindsey Hilsum called “Why Burma was crushed” at The New Statesman.

As Burmese pro-democracy activists are rounded up, the west looks to China to intervene. We are failing to see the seismic changes that authoritarian capitalism is bringing the world.

In Beijing you might never have known about the saffron revolution that started with a bang and ended with a whimper in Burma. No pictures of chanting monks on state-controlled television, no anguished politicians saying “something must be done”. Yet the consensus in Washington and European capitals was that only China could resolve the crisis.

Over the past year, there have been similar cries about Darfur and North Korea. Suddenly China has become what the former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright once called her own country – “the essential nation”. It is not just China’s new diplomatic reach, born of economic muscle, that is drawing international attention, but also its system of “authoritarian capitalism”, which is increasingly seen as a counterweight to liberal democracy. …

… Western leaders dream of a Burma reinvented in their image – with a little lustre from association with the revered opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi rubbing off on them. But China is still ruled by the Communist Party that shot and mowed down protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and which suppresses Buddhist monks in Tibet.

Authoritarian capitalism, not liberal democracy, has made China successful. The Beijing government’s ideal would be for the Burmese generals to allow limited political participation, so that stability could be assured and China’s supply of timber, gemstones, oil and natural gas guaranteed.

And there’s a bigger picture to consider.

Western leaders continue to assert that capitalism inevitably brings democracy in its wake. “As China reforms its economy, its leaders are finding that once the door to freedom is opened even a crack, it cannot be closed,” said Bush in 2005. “As the people of China grow in prosperity, their demands for political freedom will grow as well.” The US president cited South Korea and Taiwan as examples. “The economic wealth that South Korea created at home helped nurture a thriving middle class that eventually demanded free elections and a democratic government that would be accountable to the people,” he said.

But, as the scholars Azar Gat and James Mann have pointed out, China – unlike smaller east Asian countries – is not under the US military umbrella. It is forging its own path and it is not the one that Bush predicted. As the Communist Party of China prepares for its 17th Congress this month, scores of popular websites have been closed. Meetings of Aids activists have been banned and environmental campaigners have been jailed. Human rights campaigners say that far from more freedom being allowed in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, the space for dissent is narrowing. …

… China is no longer alone. Russia’s retreat from democracy at a time when high oil prices are boosting the economy suggests that an alternative axis is coming into being. China and Russia parted ideological course in 1960, but today, once again, they share a vision.

The Russian economist Sergei Karaganov, dean of the School of International Economics and Foreign Affairs of the State University in Moscow, describes this as a “new era of confrontation”, with China and Russia on one side and the US and EU on the other. “In an environment characterised by acute competition, the fight for the lofty values of democracy will almost inevitably acquire the character of geopolitical confrontation,” he says. “This will impede the probable process of liberalisation in the countries of the new ‘authoritarian’ capitalism – in particular, in Russia.”

The other reason no one will take military action in Burma has to do with U.S. business interests. Amy Goodman wrote in yesterday’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

The Bush administration is making headlines with its strong language against the Burmese regime. President Bush declared increased sanctions in his U.N. General Assembly speech. First lady Laura Bush has come out with perhaps the strongest statements. Explaining she has a cousin who is a Burma activist, Laura Bush said, “The deplorable acts of violence being perpetrated against Buddhist monks and peaceful Burmese demonstrators shame the military regime.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, at the meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, said, “The United States is determined to keep an international focus on the travesty that is taking place.” Keeping an international focus is essential, but should not distract from one of the most powerful supporters of the junta, one that is much closer to home. Rice knows it well: Chevron.

Fueling the military junta that has ruled for decades are Burma’s natural-gas reserves, controlled by the Burmese regime in partnership with the U.S. multinational oil giant Chevron, the French oil company Total and a Thai oil firm. Offshore natural-gas facilities deliver their extracted gas to Thailand through Burma’s Yadana pipeline. The pipeline was built with slave labor, forced into servitude by the Burmese military.

The original pipeline partner, Unocal, was sued by EarthRights International for the use of slave labor. As soon as the suit was settled out of court, Chevron bought Unocal.

Chevron’s role in propping up the brutal regime in Burma is clear. According to Marco Simons, U.S. legal director at EarthRights International: “Sanctions haven’t worked because gas is the lifeline of the regime. Before Yadana went online, Burma’s regime was facing severe shortages of currency. It’s really Yadana and gas projects that kept the military regime afloat to buy arms and ammunition and pay its soldiers.”

The U.S. government has had sanctions in place against Burma since 1997. A loophole exists, though, for companies grandfathered in. Unocal’s exemption from the Burmese sanctions has been passed on to its new owner, Chevron.

Rice served on the Chevron board of directors for a decade. She even had a Chevron oil tanker named after her. While she served on the board, Chevron was sued for involvement in the killing of non-violent protesters in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. As in Burma, Nigerians suffer political repression and pollution where oil and gas are extracted, and live in dire poverty. The protests in Burma were actually triggered by a government-imposed increase in fuel prices.

So, the West flaps about, issuing statements and maybe sending an envoy or two. Please note I don’t believe an armed invasion is the only option or even the most desirable option. But I believe the West is too compromised to exercise any option.

See also:

Monks Are Silenced, and for Now, Internet Is, Too

Monks flee crackdown as reports of brutality emerge