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CvT: What the Myanmar Military Coup Means for US-China Relations

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Myanmar’s military takeover and the subsequent protests and violence have resulted in more than just domestic turmoil. The country’s turn from its democratic reforms of the past decade has called into question what the future of Myanmar looks like, as well as where the country fits into the political, ideological, economic, and strategic battle between China and the US. Neither power benefits from chaos and unrest in Myanmar, but the military coup may be a way for China to prevent Western influence and democratic ideals from taking hold in the region. 

The situation

On February 1, 2021, Myanmar’s military seized control of the country, effectively ending a short period of quasi-democracy that began in 2011. The coup was carried out through the military’s declaration of a year-long national emergency and detention of National League for Democracy (NLD) leaders and civilian officials. Most notable among the detained is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s state counselor, the leader of the NLD, and a long-established voice for democratic reforms and free elections in Myanmar. Suu Kyi led the NLD to victory in Myanmar’s 2015 election, and again in the 2020 election, which was held last November.  The military claims it has acted legitimately, citing a constitutional article that allows the military to take over in emergencies.

The 2020 election was a sweeping win for the NLD—the party won 83% of seats up for grabs—and a crushing loss for the primary opposition and military-backed party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which lost half its seats. The military, known as the Tatmadaw, and the USDP rejected the election results, citing contentious events and voter list irregularities that could have led to fraud. The election commission said there was no evidence to support this claim. Human rights and election organizations globally did find a number of electoral problems with the 2020 elections—the denial of voting rights to certain groups, such as the Rohingya, for example—but presumably these are not the same fraudulent points the military is referring to.

Now, military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing is in power, and Myanmar is rocked with civil unrest and protests against the military rule. Peaceful protests and strikes have been met with military use of force that has resulted in thousands injured and hundreds killed. The military has also suspended telephone and internet access in some cities, revoked publishing licenses for major newspapers, grounded passenger flights, set up roadblocks, and detained thousands of citizens. The military’s harsh response to peaceful pro-democracy protests has left many mourning the short-lived period of democratic reforms and wondering where the country is headed. 

US-China interests in Myanmar

With regard to Myanmar, US foreign policy is informed by its traditional support for democratic governments which has led it to push for democratic development and protection of human rights there in recent years. The US did not have close ties with Myanmar, which was isolated from much of the world under its decades of military rule (1962-2011), but began to reach out when the country made moves towards democracy. Former President Obama ended most US sanctions and a ban on US assistance to Myanmar. Since then, the US has largely supported Myanmar’s political and economic reforms and worked to help strengthen civil society and democracy in the country. The US has provided nearly US$1.5 billion in development assistance aimed at supporting the democratic transition, which had led to increased engagement between the two countries.

In contrast, China’s approach to Myanmar has been characterized by its typical foreign policy philosophy of noninterference and focus on areas of economic and/or strategic gain. It sees Myanmar as a strategic part of the Belt and Road Initiative, as it is China’s gateway to the Indian Ocean, a source of natural resources, and a place to develop an economic corridor of roads, railways, and oil and gas pipelines. Myanmar has maintained close ties with Beijing through trade and other forms of economic cooperation,  including infrastructure development projects.

Under its decades of military rule, China was Myanmar’s primary trade partner. While China was slow to embrace the NLD, Xi Jinping began inviting NLD members on paid trips to China. Beijing has also supported Suu Kyi’s government through its controversial treatment of the Muslim Rohingya minority. Suu Kyi publicly expressed gratitude for China’s perspective on this, and appeared eager to foster greater ties with China. In January of 2020, Xi signed agreements for a China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, and many Chinese projects are underway in Myanmar.

International response to the coup

Numerous governments have condemned the military coup and called for Myanmar’s military leaders to release those it has detained and step down from power. The US officially labeled the takeover a coup, and has imposed targeted sanctions in response, as have Canada and Britain. China has been much quieter, and has avoided criticizing Myanmar’s government or military in official statements. In fact, Xinhua characterized the February 1 military takeover as a “major cabinet reshuffle.” Furthermore, China, along with Russia, has blocked attempts for the UN Security Council to take action on Myanmar.

The Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is hopeful for a solution in which the US and China come together to help bring a peaceful resolution to the Myanmar crisis. ASEAN leaders have called for the “immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar,” but cannot do much more without the support of the international community, or at least the US and China. The group has begun negotiations to hold a foreign ministers’ meeting with the US and China soon; details of the meeting are still to be determined. Both the US and China have expressed support for ASEAN’s leadership role in seeking a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

Instability is undesirable for both the US and China

Although China has not spoken out against the military coup, and many in the West have been quick to assume that a non-democratic Myanmar is one aligned with Beijing, it does not necessarily follow that China supports what is occurring in Myanmar. China’s interests in Myanmar are hurt by the current state of the country; the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor will have a hard time moving forward amidst the turmoil of protests and violence. In addition, if the NLD does not regain power in Myanmar, China’s efforts to build relationships with the NLD have gone to waste. Still, many protestors believe China played a role in the coup by supporting the military and helping them build a firewall to take control of the nation’s internet services. Protestors have assembled at the Chinese embassy building in Yangon to protest what they say is Chinese support for the coup. China’s non-interference and general inaction in response to the coup make it difficult to definitively place China on one side of the coup, but it seems likely that if it is opposed to the military takeover, it is on the grounds of economic interests and not ideological disagreement. 

In contrast, the US is concerned that the coup spells an end to what was a burgeoning democracy in Myanmar, and that with this reversal authoritarian ideals will prevail in the country and perhaps expand further into the region. With the coup, the US fears that Myanmar will lose its momentum towards democracy and move closer to China’s model of authoritarianism. These fears are not without reason. Myanmar’s democratic experiment is still very young, and both the Tatmadaw and the NLD are ideologically closer to Beijing than to Washington. Should the return to military rule result in a Myanmar government more closely aligned with China, the US would lose a hopeful democratic ally in the region and have to grapple with China’s stronger presence in the region.

What’s next?

Ultimately, it seems that the US and China should have shared interests, and therefore reason aplenty to work together, with regards to Myanmar. This is especially so as the situation looks increasingly grim inside Myanmar. In response to the military’s brutal treatment of peaceful protestors, the protesters are beginning to embrace more aggressive tactics. The New York Times reports that protestors are training with firearms and hand grenades, and that members of the elected Parliament have called for the formation of a resistance army.

Washington clearly seeks a return to the democratic progress made in Myanmar and the end to authoritarian military rule. While it is unclear what Beijing prefers, it seems likely that it will work with whoever maintains power and fosters an environment conducive to Chinese economic and strategic goals in the region. If ideological competition can be set aside in favor of a joint interest in ending the violence and avoiding a civil war, perhaps there is hope for the US and China to find common ground and work with multilateral organizations like ASEAN to help bring about a peaceful resolution to the Myanmar crisis. 

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