Burma, as Myanmar was known then, won its independence from the British in 1948. Since then, bilateral relations between the US and Myanmar can at best be described as lackluster. They have lacked what experts would call “strategic compulsions.” Western allies of the US lack strategic calculus in dealing with Myanmar. They have viewed it from the narrow prism of moralistic Western standards of democracy, human rights, rule of law, corruption and the trafficking of humans, drugs and weapons.
Myanmar: What Comes Next for Minority Groups?
To be fair, the US has not always or entirely been sanctimonious. The historic Kissinger Doctrine integrated China into the liberal postwar order. It facilitated investments into, transferred technology to and trained manpower in China. Under Deng Xiaoping and his successors, China continued its peaceful rise. Xi Jinping, the current Chinese president, has ended that peaceful rise and destabilized the world order.
Missing Out on Myanmar
The US approach to Myanmar has been muddled and inconsistent. During the Cold War, Washington was happy to deal with allies in Asia that were military dictatorships. Under President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the US was happy to deal with a communist regime.
In contrast, Burma was a parliamentary democracy from 1948 to 1962 when Ne Win led a military coup. For the next 26 years, the country was ruled by the Tatmadaw, the official name of the country’s armed forces. In 1988, nationwide protests broke out. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Oxford-educated daughter of Burmese independence leader Aung San, emerged as the leader of a pro-democracy movement. The National League of Democracy (NLD) went on to win the 1990, 2015 and 2020 parliamentary elections.
In comparison with China, Myanmar’s regime has been far less oppressive. There is no counterpart to the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution. The Tatmadaw has yielded to public pressure and held largely free and fair elections. In elections, even members of the Tatmadaw have voted for Suu Kyi’s NLD. Yet the US and its Western allies have ignored the strategic importance of Myanmar in the Indian Ocean region in general and the Bay of Bengal in particular.
Chinese Influence Wanes and Waxes
In the past, the US and its allies put pressure on the Tatmadaw by imposing sanctions on Myanmar. Instead of weakening the Tatmadaw, sanctions hurt the people and pushed the country into the arms of China. Between 2004 and 2007, a generational change in the Tatmadaw caused a rethink in Myanmar’s relationship with China.
The younger officers of the Tatmadaw decided to decrease dependence on Beijing. They tried to reduce Chinese influence in political and military governance. They attempted to transition to some form of democracy and improve relations with the West and neighbors like India. In 2011, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton swung by Myanmar. President Barack Obama visited twice in 2012 and 2014. By 2016-17, the persecution of Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic minority in the country’s Rakhine state, was in the news and relations between the US and Myanmar were already souring.
Yet this was a relatively good time for the country. Even financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank opened their purse strings. During this brief honeymoon period with the West, China found itself on the back foot for the first time since 1988.
In 2011, Myanmar suspended the construction of the Myitsone dam, a controversial hydroelectric project financed and led by a state-owned Chinese company. In 2015, Myanmar’s general elections led to yet another victory for Suu Kyi’s NLD. This was an opportune moment for the West to build relations with Myanmar and counter China. The Tatmadaw had ceded ground to elected officials. Washington could have cultivated both of Myanmar’s centers of power: the NLD and the Tatmadaw.
But the US missed this opportunity. From 2017, the Rohingya issue clouded Myanmar’s relationship with the West and allowed China to regain its clout in the country. The military coup in February this year strengthens China’s hand further.
China has already been strengthening its hand by following its tried and tested policy of investing in infrastructure. The China–Myanmar Transport Corridor is connecting the Chinese province of Yunnan to the Bay of Bengal. Roads, railways, river navigation, oil and gas pipelines are deepening economic ties between Myanmar and China. It is part of the Middle Kingdom’s “Look South” policy that seeks to draw Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Pakistan into the Chinese arc of influence.
The military coup in Myanmar presents a great opportunity to China and represents the first major foreign policy challenge to President Joe Biden’s administration as well as the Quadrilateral Security Alliance, the informal strategic dialogue between the US, Japan, Australia and India known as the Quad.
The US Still Has Some Cards
China may be in the ascendant right now, but the West still has clout in Myanmar. Suu Kyi studied at Oxford, lived in the UK for decades and married an Englishman. People from Myanmar have immigrated to Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the US. So, the West commands what Joseph Nye has calls “soft power” in the country. Burmese people want to immigrate not to China but to the US.
Yet American foreign policy to Myanmar has squandered this soft power prodigally. Obama is the only American president who gave Myanmar the attention it deserved. His foreign policy pivot to Asia was a strategic masterstroke, but Donald Trump abandoned Obama’s outreach not only to Myanmar but the rest of Asia.
The military coup is a wake-up call for the US to act. China is now firmly in the saddle in Myanmar. The Tatmadaw is finding ferocious resistance on the streets. There is another overlooked problem. Like many postcolonial states, Myanmar is a bewildering patchwork of cultural, ethnic and linguistic groups. Many of them have been fighting for independence or autonomy for years.
Few in the West realize that a savage conflict might be about to break out. About 20 rebel groups, including the United Wa State Army, Karen National Union, Kachin Independence Army and Arakan Army, control 33% of Myanmar’s territory. Many of them have condemned the coup. In response, the Tatmadaw has launched airstrikes in Karen state. With drugs and arms flush in rebel areas, Myanmar might be about to become the new Afghanistan.
The Quad leaders’ joint statement on the White House website emphasizes “the urgent need to restore democracy and the priority of strengthening democratic resilience” in Myanmar. This mention is heartening, but the Quad and the US need to do more. Opening dialogue with the Tatmadaw would be a good start. Intelligence sources report that most young officers favor multi-party democracy and are wary of Myanmar turning into a Chinese tributary.
A carrot-and-stick approach by Washington could still work. The World Bank has halted payments to projects after the military coup. International condemnation has rattled the Tatmadaw. Pressure to reach a political reconciliation might bear fruit. Carrots in the form of infrastructure funding and development assistance could prove attractive. Involving Asian nations such as India, Japan, South Korea and Bangladesh, as well as member states of ASEAN, could pave the path to Myanmar’s transition away from military rule.
Despite foreign policy blunders, economic woes and internal division, the US is still the undisputed top dog in the world. With the help of its Asian and European allies, Washington can counter China, prevent civil war and restore democracy in Myanmar. The time has come for Biden to act.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.