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Opinion

China rubs its hands amid international divide over Myanmar

Punitive sanctions policies should be recalibrated

| Myanmar
Indonesian President Joko Widodo speaks during a news conference after attending the ASEAN leaders' summit in Jakarta on Apr. 24: the carefully nuanced statement represented a rebuff to the U.S.-led approach to isolate Myanmar.   © Reuters

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including "Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan."

International calls for the restoration of democracy in strategically located Myanmar obscure an important divide between that country's neighbors and the West.

The sanctions-centered approach of the United States and the European Union has sought to punitively isolate Myanmar, while neighboring countries favor a policy of constructive engagement with the military junta.

After a gradual, decadelong democratization process, Myanmar's military, or Tatmadaw, seized power on Feb. 1 and began cracking down on those peacefully protesting the coup. The continuing unrest has carried important international implications, including the flight of political dissidents and ordinary refugees to neighboring countries.

The cross-border impacts explain why neighbors view engagement as essential, including urging Myanmar's military rulers to address the domestic unrest through political reconciliation.

Myanmar's land frontiers are porous, with cross-border ethnic linkages with communities in India and Thailand making the transboundary movement of people common. Trade, investment and counterinsurgency cooperation also link Myanmar with the countries that surround it.

Can anyone imagine the U.S. seeking to isolate and squeeze its southern neighbor Mexico? U.S. President Joe Biden, in fact, is relying on the Mexican government to address the present border crisis precipitated by the tide of mainly Central American refugees trying to enter the U.S. since he took office.

Likewise, it is inconceivable that Myanmar's immediate neighbors, saddled with a refugee influx since the coup, would embrace the punitive approach adopted by the U.S. and the EU. Yet, the Biden administration initiated a sanctions campaign against Myanmar without consultations with neighboring countries.

There is truth in the common diplomatic view that the farther a country is from Myanmar, the more likely it will favor a punitive approach, while those nearby will keep the channels of communication open through calibrated engagement. The history of sanctions shows that punitive actions have rarely worked without some form of engagement.

In this light, the presence of junta leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing at the Apr. 24 in-person Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Jakarta -- and the carefully nuanced summit statement on Myanmar that emphasized the "ASEAN family" -- represented a rebuff to the U.S.-led approach to isolate Myanmar.

According to the five-point consensus that emerged from the summit, ASEAN will mediate to help resolve the crisis. This is, however, easier said than done. ASEAN, for example, has failed to resolve the crisis in Thailand, where the leader of the 2014 coup remains ensconced in power -- in civilian garb -- by cracking down on pro-democracy protesters, including using a feared lese-majeste law to imprison those who insult the royal family.

More broadly, the retreat of the Myanmar spring exemplifies how democracy is under siege around the world. The wave of rollback of democracies highlights the growing threat from a fusion of autocratic politics and crony, state-guided capitalism.

Today, all the countries of continental Southeast Asia -- Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam -- are under authoritarian rule, like their giant northern neighbor, China. In fact, only two of ASEAN's 10 members are true democracies with judicial independence and free media.

Still, Myanmar's generals are discovering the hard way that rolling back democratic freedoms once people take them as their right carries enduring challenges. Although Myanmar had been under military rule for 50 of its 73 years since independence, the continuing protests show that many of its citizens are unwilling to accept a return to military rule.

Anti-coup protesters in Mandalay, pictured on May 16: the continuing protests show that many of its citizens are unwilling to accept a return to military rule.    © Myitkyina News/Reuters

Only the military can return Myanmar to the path of democratization. After all, it was the military that voluntarily ushered in the country's democratic transition that began in 2011. It is thus critical for outside states, including in the West, to maintain lines of communication with Myanmar's top generals.

One of the world's most ethnically diverse countries, Myanmar has long been an easy sanctions target because it has remained a weak, divided state torn by ethnic insurgencies. Its failure to construct an inclusive national identity has allowed old ethnic rivalries to fester, stifling the resource-rich country's potential.

As past experience has shown, however, an uncompromisingly harsh approach toward Myanmar has had the perverse effect of weakening America's hand while strengthening China's.

China values Myanmar as a strategic gateway to the Indian Ocean. Like India, Myanmar has long complained about the flow of Chinese arms to guerrilla groups, accusing Beijing of backing several of them as levers against it. The nationalistic military is wary of reliance on China. But international isolation could leave it with no choice.

As Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen told Nikkei's Future of Asia 2021 conference earlier this month: "If I don't rely on China, who will I rely on? If I don't ask China, who am I to ask?" Cambodia is a cautionary tale of how international isolation pushes an economically vulnerable nation into China's arms. Myanmar could be next, unless the U.S. recalibrates its sanctions policy.

The international divide over how to deal with Myanmar also represents a division between Western and Asian values. In contrast to the West's interventionist impulse and democratic evangelism, the Asian way of standing up for one's principles and beliefs does not extend to imposing them on others through coercive activism.

Today, with little prospect that the West could engineer a color revolution in Myanmar, friendly conversations with that country's generals to persuade them to halt their crackdown and release political prisoners are likely to make more headway toward influencing future events than the current heavy-handed approach.

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