By Adrian Croft - Analysis
LONDON (Reuters) - When it comes to speaking out on Tibet, China has just got too much economic clout for western powers to talk too loudly.
In contrast to western condemnation of a crackdown on demonstrations in Myanmar (Burma) last year, western criticism of China's handling of protests in Tibet have been much more muted, analysts say.
"There's a tendency in Washington to make a China exception'," said John Tkacik, China expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative U.S. think tank.
"Things we would whack Burma, Sudan or Uzbekistan for, we want to ignore when China does them," he said.
The United States and other western nations called for restraint after a crackdown on anti-government protests in Tibet in which Chinese authorities said 13 had been killed, while exiled Tibetans put the death toll at around 100.
But expressions of concern have stopped there.
"There's a general unwillingness of governments to speak out on human rights violations involving China," said Corinna-Barbara Francis, a China researcher at human rights group Amnesty International in London.
"A lot has to do with this perception that has emerged of an all-powerful, influential presence of China which I think is exaggerated and goes beyond its economic clout," she said.
With economic growth of 10 percent or more a year since 2003, China now has the world's fourth biggest economy and may be on track to overtake the United States as the world's largest economy within a couple of decades.
It has been doing deals around the world to secure supplies of oil and metals -- notably when state-owned Aluminum Corp of China teamed up with U.S. aluminum producer Alcoa in February to buy a $14 billion stake in mining giant Rio Tinto.
Analysts argue that Tibet, which Chinese troops marched into in 1950, has never enjoyed much international support even when it launched a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959, prompting the flight of its spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
Then, long before China's economic boom, the west saw Beijing as a potential Cold War ally against the Soviet Union.
And although Tibet's ancient Buddhist culture won sympathy from many individual westerners, its remoteness and poverty gave it no international clout.
But a traditional western "hands off" approach to Tibet has been underscored this time around by the increasing economic interdependence between the United States and China.
The anti-government protests in Tibet come at a particularly delicate time, as Washington battles a credit crunch and a falling dollar, and looks to China to bail it out.
China has about $1.5 trillion of foreign exchange reserves, a large proportion of which are in dollar-denominated bonds. If China stopped buying, the dollar would likely fall sharply.
China's new investment fund pumped $5 billion into Morgan Stanley in December after the U.S. investment bank posted $9.4 billion of losses in subprime mortgages and other assets.
The economic interdependence is not however only one-way. China relies on U.S. and western markets to buy its exports which underpin its healthy trade surplus. The U.S. trade gap with China soared to a record $256 billion in 2007.
This has prompted some to argue that the United States and others could take a tougher stand with China.
Gerrit van der Wees, from the Formosan Association for Public Affairs in Washington, which lobbies for Taiwan's separate identity in international affairs, said the United States felt it had to be more accommodating to China.
"But, in our view, that doesn't mean giving in to what China says and does, which is what the U.S. has been doing a little bit too much over the past year," he added.
China's economic lure, however, seems to be strong, not just for the United States but the European Union.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said on a visit to China in January that Britain was open to Chinese trade and investment and pitched for China's new $200 billion sovereign wealth fund to open an office in London.
French firms sealed $30 billion of deals during President Nicolas Sarkozy's visit to China last November. Tue Mar 18, 2008(Ruuter)