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Myanmar Crisis

Japan seeks dialogue with Myanmar military after coup

Tokyo's softly-softly approach could open it to criticism

Japan has maintained good relations with Myanmar over the decades. Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, left, met Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing in August 2020 in Myanmar. (Photo courtesy of Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

TOKYO -- The Japanese government is seeking to strike a delicate balance between maintaining dialogue with the Myanmar military and censuring it for staging Monday's coup.

Tokyo has been in touch with the military through the Japanese embassy in Myanmar, a senior official from the ministry of foreign affairs told Nikkei. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said on Thursday that he had "grave concerns" about the coup at a budget meeting, adding, "I would like to reiterate my strong call on the military to restore the democratic political system as soon as possible."

However, Japan is unlikely to reverse the softly-softly approach to Myanmar that it has taken for decades. While Western countries have not ruled out reimposing sanctions, Japan is counting on its historically good relationship with Myanmar to help mediate between the military and the West.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, in his first major foreign policy speech, U.S. President Joe Biden said: "Over the past few days, we've been in close cooperation with our allies and partners to bring together the international community to address the military coup in Burma," referring to the country by its old name.

He called on Myanmar's military to relinquish the power it has seized and release detainees. "We will work with our partners to support restoration of democracy and the rule of law and impose consequences on those responsible," Biden said.

But Tokyo has been cautious to join the chorus of criticism from the West of the junta when it had held Aung San Suu Kyi in house arrest. In large part, this is due to Tokyo's worries about China's influence in the region. Japan fears that if it pulls the plug on financial aid to Myanmar, China will simply move in to fill the void.

As such, Japan maintained a good relationship with the previous junta, formed in 1988. When Suu Kyi was under house arrest from the 1980s to 2010, Japan kept its powder dry and kept up ties with the junta. When Myanmar shifted to civilian rule after 2011, Japan continued its generous financial support.

This way, Japan has kept communications channels open with both the armed forces and Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. For example, when Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi visited Myanmar in 2020, he met with both Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing, the army commander-in-chief. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga also met Min Aung Hlaing in 2014 when Suga was the chief cabinet secretary.

Japan's approach is not without reason. Myanmar is geopolitically important to China because of its position and the country has joined the Belt and Road Initiative. China has always maintained that a country's political situation is its "internal affairs" and has withheld comment on the coup. Beijing would also not be sorry if ties between Myanmar and Western countries fray, as that might drive the generals into its warm embrace.

On Wednesday, G-7 foreign ministers, including Japan's, issued a joint statement that said they were " united in condemning the military coup in Myanmar." This is a much stronger statement than what Tokyo had said before.

Japan also took such a dovish approach on Iran. In 2019, then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Tehran and met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to convey a message from then U.S. President Donald Trump.

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