AS the junta's misbehavior worsened in Myanmar (as those thugs have re-chris tened Burma) last week, pundits suggested that we should force China to pressure its client to treat the pro-democracy demonstrators politely - by threatening to boycott next year's Beijing Olympics.
Sorry, but Myanmar's far more important to China's vision for the coming decades than the Pollution-and-Oppression Games. The bullies in Beijing see the Olympics as a coming-out party - but Myanmar is a strategic lifeline.
So, sure, if the Myanmar situation worsens as China stonewalls, we can and should punish Beijing by boycotting the 2008 Games. But we have to have realistic expectations regarding the results.
On the flip side, some Westerners argue that China isn't really the decisive player in Myanmar - that Western corporations flying under the radar screen do more to prop up the junta than Beijing does.
Absolute bull. This doesn't mean that greedy multinationals don't lurk out in those jungles - but to ascribe more power to them than to Beijing is like blaming purse-snatchers for the junk-mortgage crisis.
Here's the real situation:
China regards Myanmar as a satellite. Beijing wishes it could just grab the country the way it seized Tibet, but believes the geostrategic cost would be too high. So it supports the junta as the next-best option and develops Myanmar as an economic colony.
Why does China see Myanmar as absolutely critical to its future? After all, it's a bitterly poor country of 55 million, where time didn't just stand still for the last half-century - it actually went backward. And neither the ethnic Burmans (half the population) nor the up-country tribes like the Chinese one bit.
The answers are straightforward:
* Myanmar offers 1,200 miles of coastline on the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, bordering the Indian Ocean. And those waters are a strategic lifeline for China, carrying trade westward and bringing back desperately needed oil from the Middle East and Africa.
China knows that we own the Pacific militarily, but hopes that - in the event of a Sino-U.S. crisis - it could face us down in the Indian Ocean, its backdoor to the world. When I was in Myanmar 11 years ago, the Chinese were already modernizing docks and eyeing the development of new harbors.
* Myanmar offers the promise of its own oil and gas deposits, while its magnificent hardwood forests are being clear-cut to feed China's industrial appetites. (The ecological devastation is stunning.) And Beijing sets the terms of trade.
* The advent of a pro-Western government in Myanmar would mean that, in wartime, China would have no direct access to the Greater Indian Ocean. The equivalent would be for the United States to lose access to the Caribbean - or worse.
China wants to minimize the ugly headlines from Myanmar, but it's not going to pull its support for the junta just to keep the U.S. water-polo team in the Olympics.
The joker in the deck is the brave, persistent and slippery Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, "The Lady," Myanmar's eternally under-house-arrest democracy champion. The only way that Beijing would swing its support behind the pro-democracy movement would be if The Lady cut a back-room deal guaranteeing China's continued presence, influence and access. Watch that space.
Elsewhere, Beijing sees everything breaking its way. It's bought enough influence in America to prevent us from demanding fair exchange rates, honest terms of trade and elementary standards. (Want any lead paint with that baby formula, Ma?) Except for a few perfunctory remarks, China's support of rogue regimes goes unchallenged by Western leaders. And human-rights concerns evaporate when profits are involved.
Above all else, Beijing does not want troublesome ideas popping up among its own people. And the idea that a few thousand Buddhist monks in the streets could bring down an autocratic regime would be troublesome, indeed.
Anyway, does the West really care about Myanmar? Naw. Westerners focus solely on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The country's tribes have been butchered, poisoned, raped en masse, tortured and driven from their homes - but the horrific sufferings of the less-glamorous rate, at best, a conference footnote.
For us, Myanmar's a one-issue country, and the issue is The Lady. Well, she's certainly valiant and gloriously stubborn - but the undocumented ravages of AIDS up on the Chinese border, the ecological devastation of a unique environment, the junta's cultural genocide and Beijing's economic imperialism happen to be a great deal more important than the agenda of the country's urban intellectuals.
There's more to Myanmar's tragedy than one woman locked in her yard. China figured that out long ago; we can't even find the place on a map.
When I was in Myanmar in 1996 (on a counterdrug mission), the locals could no longer afford property in downtown Mandalay - a city central to the country's heritage - because the Chinese had run up real-estate prices astronomically. Up north, the old Burma road, built with American blood in World War II, was crumbling under the convoys of Chinese trucks carrying goods to Myanmar's ports.
Major cities in western China looked to Myanmar for markets, resources and export routes. And the Chinese already had established intelligence listening posts on the Myanmar coast back then. Security cooperation was quiet, but close.
China's got an even tighter grip on the country now.
God knows, the right thing to do would be to call China's bluff on Myanmar. But threatening to boycott the 2008 Olympics won't be enough to get Beijing to abandon the junta. The Chinese would rather win the gold medal in strategy than in field hockey.