This week,Â China welcomedÂ Burma’s reclusive dictator Than Shwe for a high profile state visit, which included meetings with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. Than Shwe was reportedly accompanied byÂ a prominently featured delegation ofÂ family members, as well as a retinue of newly minted senior military officials, who ascended to the upper echelon of junta leadership just last week when the old guardÂ traded in their military uniformsÂ for civvies. This visit is the most recent public affirmation of bilateral ties, following Wen Jiabaoâ€™s June visit to Burma and last weekâ€™s “friendly call” by two Chinese warships near Rangoon.
Than Shweâ€™s trip follows close on the heels of a visit by another reclusive despot,Â Kim Jong-il. Kim traveled to China at the end of August â€“ his second trip this year — to secure Chinese support for the designation of his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, as his successor.Â Speculation is mountingÂ that the junior Kim will be appointed to a key post during the extraordinary congress of the Korean Workers’ Party, the first since 1980.
These high profile visits by the North Korean and Burmese leadership at a time of political transition demonstrate the importance of Beijingâ€™s backing in orchestrating their desired political succession arrangements. Beijingâ€™s imprimatur is particularly critical for these two regimes whose legitimacy is weak at home and, in large part, abroad. At a time when both regimes arguably need Beijingâ€™s goodwill more than China needs anything they have to offer, these dynamics belie the frequent claim that China lacks significant influence over Pyongyang and Naypyidaw.
Moreover, Beijing’s dictatorship diplomacy â€“ through which it warmly embraces unsavory regimes fromÂ IranÂ toÂ ZimbabweÂ – undercuts its ostensible effort to burnish its worldwide image, and expand its “soft power” abroad. Such bonhomie toward pariah states will do nothing to stem aÂ rising tide of concernÂ about how China will exert its influence as it grows more powerful. Rather, it seems increasingly clear that Beijing is willing to sacrifice some international prestige by continuing, or even stepping up, its relations with states that threaten regional or international peace and security.
Beyond the short-term tactical gains of access to markets and natural resources, and any strategic benefits China may reap from relations with these states, Beijingâ€™s ties with authoritarian regimes across the globe are also rooted in a shared perspective on the nature of political authority which influences its foreign policy calculus in ways that democratic governments tend to overlook or ignore. As Beijing continues both substantive and symbolic exchanges with these regimes, policymakers should temper their expectations of Chinese willingness to cooperate in any meaningful action against such rogue states.