China’s rapidly growing footprint in Myanmar is America’s strategic loss, and it is the direct result of America's own policies, writes Brahma Chellaney.
A recent joint statement by US President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi “expressed deep concern about the deteriorating situation in Myanmar,” and called for a constructive dialogue to aid the country’s transition toward an inclusive federal democratic system. Unfortunately, the US-led sanctions policy has undercut this goal and made a bad situation worse.
While inflicting misery on Myanmar’s ordinary citizens, Western sanctions have left the ruling military elites relatively unscathed, giving the junta little incentive to loosen its political grip. The primary beneficiary has been China, which has been allowed to expand its foothold in a country that it values as a strategic gateway to the Indian Ocean and an important source of natural resources.
This development has amplified regional security challenges. For example, Chinese military personnel are now helping to build a listening post on Myanmar’s Great Coco Island, which lies just north of India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the home to the Indian military’s only tri-service command. Once operational, this new spy station will likely assist China’s maritime surveillance of India, including by monitoring nuclear submarine movements and tracking tests of missiles that often splash down in the Bay of Bengal.
In a way, history is repeating itself. Starting in the late 1980s, previous US-led sanctions paved the way for China to become Myanmar’s dominant trading partner and investor. That sanctions regime lasted until 2012, when Barack Obama heralded a new US policy and became the first US president to visit Myanmar. In 2015, Myanmar elected its first civilian-led government, ending decades of military dictatorship.
In February 2021, however, the military staged a coup and detained civilian leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi, prompting the Biden administration to re-impose wide-ranging sanctions. Importantly, this reversal of Myanmar’s democratic project was precipitated by earlier targeted US measures against the military leadership – including the commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing – for rampant human-rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims that forced most to flee to Bangladesh. After President Donald Trump’s administration slapped sanctions on Hlaing and other top commanders in July 2019, the generals lost any incentive to sustain Myanmar’s democratisation. A year and a half later, they had toppled the civilian government, after denouncing the results of the November 2020 national election as fraudulent.
The lesson for Western policymakers should be clear. Individually sanctioning foreign officials – which is essentially a symbolic gesture – can seriously hamper US diplomacy and cause unintended consequences. (Indeed, China continues to rebuff the Biden administration’s requests for direct military talks as a means of protesting US sanctions on General Li Shangfu, who became China’s defence minister in March.)
America’s longstanding lack of ties with Myanmar’s nationalist military – the only functioning institution in a culturally and ethnically diverse society – has been an enduring weakness of its policy toward the country. Owing to this limitation, Suu Kyi achieved the status of a virtual saint in the Western imagination, only for the feted Nobel Peace Prize winner’s reputation to fall precipitously after she defended her country’s Rohingya policy against accusations of genocide.
Now that the junta leaders are sanctioned and the civilian leaders are under detention, the US has little leverage to influence political developments in Myanmar. Instead, America and its allies have ratcheted up the sanctions and lent support to the armed resistance to military rule. To that end, a Myanmar-specific provision added to the 2023 US National Defense Authorization Act authorizes “non-lethal assistance” for anti-regime armed groups, including the People’s Defence Force, a notional army established by the shadow National Unity Government. Biden now has considerable latitude to aid Myanmar’s anti-junta insurrection, just as Obama did when he provided “non-lethal assistance,” in the form of battlefield support equipment, to Ukrainian forces and Syrian rebels.
But such interventions are likely to plunge Myanmar into greater disorder and poverty without advancing US interests. Even in the unlikely event that the disparate groups behind the armed insurrection manage to overthrow the junta, Myanmar would not re-emerge as a democracy. Rather, it would become a Libya-style failed state and a bane to regional security. It would also remain a proxy battleground between Western powers and China and Russia. A United Nations report estimates that, since the coup, Myanmar has imported at least $1 billion worth of weapons and dual-use goods, principally from China and Russia.
China’s rapidly growing footprint in Myanmar is America’s strategic loss. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Given its strategic location, Myanmar could be co-opted into America’s Indo-Pacific strategy through a gradual easing of sanctions in response to positive moves by the junta.
Given that sanctions naturally close the door to dialogue and influence, they should never be employed as the first tool of foreign policy. After the Thai army chief seized power in a coup in 2014, the US wisely eschewed sanctions and opted for engagement, which helped safeguard Thailand’s thriving civil society. That strategy eventually led to the general’s defeat in the recent national election.
Restoring democracy in Myanmar can be achieved only gradually by engaging with the country’s military rulers and offering them incentives to reverse course. Sanctions without engagement have never worked. If Biden can closely engage with China – the world’s largest, strongest, and longest-surviving autocracy – including by sending the CIA Director, the Secretary of State, and Secretary of the Treasury to Beijing in quick succession, he should at least open lines of communication with Myanmar’s junta.
Just as the military-monarchy alliance has long shaped political developments in Thailand, where the generals have seized power 12 times over the last nine decades, Myanmar’s armed forces have traditionally asserted themselves as the country’s most powerful political player. That was evident when they retained their power under the 2008 constitution that helped bring Suu Kyi to power. Without a shift in US policy toward gradual engagement with the junta, Myanmar will remain the playground of great powers, with no hope for a new democratic opening.
Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023: www.project-syndicate.org