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Volume 723: debated on Wednesday 15 December 2010


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the role of China in the development of the infrastructure and economy of Burma and of its implications for that country and the region.

My Lords, Chinese investment in Burma is significant and growing. Major projects are under way in the oil, gas and mining sectors. We are concerned that such investment will not benefit the people of Burma due to the regime’s economic mismanagement and the prevalence of corruption and human rights abuses, including forced labour. Increased competition in the region for influence and economic opportunities in Burma has reduced pressure for genuine political reform.

My Lords, in view of China’s overt economic and tacit political support for this tyrannical regime and that of North Korea, should we not now be looking with critical and anxious eyes at China’s enormous economic effort in other places, such as Africa and South America?

I am particularly grateful to my noble friend for raising this issue because the answer is an emphatic yes. The extent of Chinese investment and trade in Latin America, Africa and south-east Asia is enormous and growing very fast indeed. We constantly urge the Beijing Government and the Chinese to match their actions and their activities with a responsible influence so that the vast sums that are poured in and the huge infrastructure that has developed can be of benefit to and not disrupt the economies in which they operate. But it is an uphill task and there is very rapid change going on in the balance of world power as a result of these developments.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Shan Women’s Action Network has recently launched the report High and Dry documenting very serious problems affecting people in the Shan state of northern Burma arising from a dam being built on the Longjiang River in China’s Yunnan Province? It highlights the need for an assessment of the impact of trans-boundary dams and shared water resource management. Could Her Majesty’s Government encourage the Chinese Government to address these matters urgently because they are seriously affecting the lives and livelihoods of people inside Burma?

Yes, we are aware of the Shan Women’s Action Network report which has just been published and the very worrying situation it outlines where the potential stoppage of water further up the river by Chinese activity would cause grave harm. We regularly discuss environmental concerns at official level with the Chinese Government; we are particularly focused on this matter and will certainly raise it further with them.

Can the Minister confirm that China has been buying up large quantities of the best tropical hardwoods from Burma only to convert them into low-grade plywood? Is that not a bad bargain for both countries?

I cannot confirm the detail but that kind of practice is clearly highly undesirable. In our constant dialogue with the Chinese on the need for environmental responsibility, that is a matter that we will certainly raise if we are not doing so already.

My Lords, of course we all agree with the concerns which the noble Lord has expressed about the way that China behaves in Burma as well as in other parts of the world. However, as far as that region is concerned, is not the most important thing to ensure that China uses the influence that it has regionally on the Burmese regime?

I think I understood the noble Baroness. Clearly, we have to seek responsible dialogue with the Chinese to ensure that they do not undermine the effect of the sanctions that we are keeping in place and which are having some effect because the generals are complaining bitterly that the sanctions put in place by the US, Australia and the EU are damaging their lifestyle and plans. So we will continue with these sanctions but we must have better co-operation from China and other countries in this matter. If that is what the noble Baroness was arguing for, I am right with her.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the slight shift in the US position, whereby it wishes to have direct negotiations with Burma to build a better relationship in the longer term, will help shift the regional balance of power by making China less capable of making Burma a client state, particularly in terms of ports in the Indian Ocean and strategic shipping?

We are constantly looking at ways of bringing more effective global pressure to bear on this unpleasant regime and its practices. Any developments of this kind need to be measured and calibrated very carefully, but it is the direction in which we should go.

My Lords, do the Government believe that there is any truth in the suggestion that the Chinese are helping the authorities in Burma to develop a nuclear capability?

I have no evidence or proof of that, beyond media suggestions. There is no established evidence or clarity on that matter which I can share with the House today.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a little difficulty with the sanctions regime against Burma, which instinctively we would all be inclined to support? If the sanctions are working, they will leave a gap for the Chinese; yet if western companies go into Burma, they are accused of conniving with the regime. There seems to be no answer to that.

The noble Lord puts his finger on an obvious dilemma. The answer to it is responsible action by the Chinese. If China’s activity effectively undermines the impact of sanctions, then the noble Lord is absolutely right in his analysis. However, it does not seem to be working that way. The sanctions appear to be causing considerable difficulties, reflected in the continual, bitter complaints made by the generals and the authorities about them. They feel that they are both hostile and damaging to their nation and target those who are richer and more comfortably ensconced rather than the ordinary people of Burma.