BEIJING, Sept. 28, 2007 — -- In the face of mounting international pressure to help relieve the crisis in Myanmar, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement late this week urging both sides to "exercise restraint," but China watchers say it is doubtful that Beijing will take any further action.
China is Myanmar's most-important trading partner and the closest thing the junta has to a military ally.
Beijing opposes using economic levers to force Myanmar into action, even though China experts say they are the greatest beneficiary of sanctions routinely levied by Western countries, including the U.S.
Myanmar has great strategic importance to China.
Beijing is striking multibillion-dollar deals with the government to build pipelines off Myanmar's coast that will transport oil and natural gas to China. Resource-rich Myanmar also provides China with inordinate amounts of timber and minerals.
The military government has been friendly to Beijing, and in return, China has shielded Myanmar in the international arena, critics say. In January, China and Russia used their veto power to block a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Myanmar's military leadership for its human rights record.
But with China preparing to host the Summer Olympic Games, the government is more mindful of its international reputation. Activists and politicians from around the world, including the United States, have called for an Olympic boycott because of China's ties with the oppressive government in Sudan.
Now a leading member of the European Parliament is questioning whether athletes should boycott the Olympics unless China steps up its pressure on Myanmar's leadership.
China is likely to offer a familiar response: Politics have no role in the games.
Chinese state media is downplaying the protests in Yangon, Myanmar's capital. The English-version Chinese paper has a front-page article about Beijing's response, but the Chinese-language press has largely ignored the events.
As China supplies Sudan with weapons and military aircraft, China is also the largest supplier of arms to Myanmar.
Bertil Lintner, an expert on Myanmar politics, told ABC News, "In 1988 when the rest of the world cut off relations with Myanmar, China stepped in and offered weapons at favorable prices?"
That is a fact that is unlikely to go unnoticed if the protests by thousands of monks and civilians result in a violent long-term military crackdown. If that were to occur, China's record on suppressing democracy movements, such as Tiananmen Square, would be forced back into that spotlight, say experts.
Some say China may be averse to getting any more involved in Myanmar exactly because it found itself in similar straits with its student protests of 1989.
"[The Chinese government] won't go any further," said Lintner. "Only if Myanmar is on the brink of civil war will they do something, when their interests are really compromised. I don't think they have that much influence over the junta anyway — no one does."
But there are signs that China has taken subtle steps to encourage change in the regime. Earlier this month, senior Chinese diplomat Tang Jiaxun told the Myanmarese foreign minister, "China wholeheartedly hopes that Myanmar will push forward a democracy process that is appropriate for the country."
Lintner says China also maintains discreet contact with the opposition parties in Myanmar "to keep their options open."