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Myanmar coup: Limits to US, Chinese influence over domestic developments

Washington And Beijing Have Different Interests In The South-east Asian Country, But The Recent History Of Their Relations With Myanmar Shows The Constraints On Their Ability To Bend Its Leadership To Their Will.

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Naypyitaw: Demonstrators hold placards calling for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi during a protest against the military coup. Photograph: Maung Lonlan/EPA

In the days following the Myanmar military's coup on Feb 1, several Western newspapers zeroed in on what the South-east Asian country's political crisis meant for America's rivalry with China.

The Wall Street Journal reported on how the coup puts Myanmar in the centre of the clash between the United States and China, and published an editorial urging the Biden administration not to respond in a way that might push Myanmar to "fall further into China's orbit".

The New York Times explored China's edge over America in the geopolitical struggle over Myanmar, addressing how Washington's denouncement of the coup gave Beijing a chance to build up its influence.

But regional experts caution against overstating the importance of US-China competition in understanding and responding to the coup, which was ultimately an organic result of a domestic power struggle between the civilian National League for Democracy (NLD) political party and the military, which feared being sidelined.

Doing so runs the risk of overstating both America's and China's influence, when in reality both great powers have limited leverage in actually being able to shape domestic political developments.

It also understates the extreme wariness with which the fiercely nationalist Myanmar military regards both the US and China, and how what happens next is ultimately up to Myanmar.

"This is about Myanmar. It's about what's happening inside their country, a sovereign issue within their borders that is very sad for those who care about the stable development of the country and the well-being of South-east Asia," said Mr Derek Mitchell, the US ambassador to Myanmar from 2012 to 2016 and now president of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute non-profit group.

"It's a major step back for Myanmar, with national and regional implications that we should consider on their own terms rather than simply as a function of two great outside powers. We have to avoid a mindset where everything is seen through the prism of the United States and China," he told The Straits Times.

While the US government may have some concerns over growing Chinese influence, the defining characteristic of the issue is "Myanmar's continued democratic path, troubled as it has been", he said.

"Rather than the coup being a test of US competition with China in Myanmar, it's more a test of the Biden doctrine, where democratic values and allied partnerships are promoted as pillars of US foreign policy during his administration," he added.

The Biden administration appears to be taking that tack for now. While President Joe Biden has unequivocally condemned the coup and announced sanctions on the military leaders behind it, he has also been notably silent on any larger implications involving competition with China.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, when asked at a press conference last Wednesday if America's response of imposing costs on the military government risked pushing Myanmar further into China's arms, similarly avoided any mention of China.

"What we are most concerned with is the restoration of civilian leadership, and putting an end to these anti-democratic actions," he said.

Mr Lucas Myers, an Indo-Pacific geopolitics researcher at the Wilson Centre think-tank, told The Straits Times: "The coup in Myanmar arises out of its own domestic context and has little to do with US-China competition.

"South-east Asian countries retain their autonomy and interests, and external powers, even ones as close in proximity as China, have little leverage to force outcomes."

That said, competition between the US and China does affect the overall international response to the coup and the long-term status of Myanmar's international relations, he added.

A wariness of outsiders

While America and China do compete for influence in Myanmar, the US predominantly aims to foster democratisation in the country, while China's interests in its neighbour - with whom it shares a 2,200km-long border - are focused on economics and strategic access, said Mr Myers.

He added that Beijing wants consistent and reliable access to the Indian Ocean via an overland infrastructure network of roads and railways that cuts through Myanmar.

The China-Myanmar Economic Corridor stretches from Kyaukphyu in Myanmar to Kunming in Yunnan.

Myanmar's relations with America and China have waxed and waned over the years, generally drawing closer to Washington as it pulled away from Beijing, and vice versa - but always with its own interests in mind.

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ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

"Myanmar has its distinct history and culture, which determine its political path today, including the wide rejection of the Rohingya people as a part of their nation," Stimson Centre's senior fellow Yun Sun told The Straits Times.

"It has a proud history of non-alignment and neutralism, which makes it prone to rejecting dominance by any foreign power. It wants good ties with both the US and China, but not on their terms," she said.

Myanmar was embraced by China when Western countries shunned it in response to the authoritarian regime's crackdown on democracy in 1988 and human rights abuses, but by 2010, Myanmar began a series of political reforms as it pivoted towards democracy - no doubt wary of being overly reliant on China.

In response to its liberalisation, the US lifted sanctions and improved ties with Myanmar, appointing Mr Mitchell as its first ambassador to the country in 22 years in 2012.

This was a precursor to Western investment in Myanmar, but that, too, ran aground after the military's crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in 2017 drew a wave of condemnation from the international community.

"America arguably has less leverage than it had, for instance, five years ago," said Mr Mitchell. "But even then, we have never had much of a relationship with the military. Even our relationship with the civilian government has been under stress after the Rohingya crisis in 2017."

Myanmar continues to resist influence by either great power, despite China's significant economic investment and initially improved diplomatic ties with the US.

"The Burmese military has had a history of xenophobia - this is partly related to its identity as the creator and protector of the Burmese nation out of its colonial experience," said Ms Sun, using Myanmar's former name of Burma.

"At this point, it probably sees the US as a security threat, and sees China as a big supporter. However, its tolerance for Chinese influence and dominance will only go that far," she added.

Myanmar's military remains suspicious of both the US and China, said Mr Mitchell. "They're very leery of overweening great power influence in their country, being a post-colonial nation."

The Tatmadaw, or the military, likely feels some degree of frustration over America's response to the Rohingya crisis and how it further led to isolation or diplomatic alienation between the two sides, as well as some suspicion towards US intentions in Myanmar, he added.

But there are also deep concerns over China and Chinese influence in the country, a mistrust fuelled by older generals' experience of fighting the 1948-1988 communist insurgency in Myanmar.

"The older generation had comrades who died at the hands of Chinese or those allied with the Chinese. Today, Chinese weapons are used against them by ethnic armed groups. So there's very little love lost and a lot of suspicion and basic concern about Myanmar's ability to counter malign Chinese influence on their internal affairs," said Mr Mitchell.

Limited leverage for cooperation

Both the US and China find their hands tied when it comes to Myanmar, unable to influence political developments in the country, even though neither finds the coup desirable.

The US is constrained by its limited tools of applying political pressure, gathering an international coalition and implementing economic sanctions, none of which would have a good chance of reversing the military coup, said Ms Sun.

As for China, even though it prefers to work with the civilian NLD, it does not believe it has the capacity to shape the end game in Myanmar and, in the end, it still has to work with whoever is in power, she added.

Mr Myers said China views the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor as an important strategic initiative over the long term, even though it has experienced setbacks and delays.

"Beijing is likely to pragmatically engage Myanmar regardless of the ruling government in order to see it completed," he added.

Said Ms Sun: "Because the US doesn't see room for compromise on the reversal of the coup, if the military does not comply, the US does not have a second-best option that it could push for.

"And because China is concerned about non-interference, it will not want to force the Burmese military's hand."

Despite this impasse for both powers, there does not appear to be momentum for them to work together to negotiate a solution to Myanmar's political crisis.

The White House's statement on Mr Biden's call to Chinese President Xi Jinping on the eve of Chinese New Year - the two leaders' first call since Mr Biden took office on Jan 20 - made no mention of the Myanmar coup.

Said Ms Sun: "If the US and China could jointly think of ways to bring different political powers together, there might be a chance for a negotiated solution.

"But given the great power competition, neither country is willing to see the other side making gains in Myanmar as a result of the coup."

She added: "It may not be feasible, given the deeply entrenched distrust. But I do think if the two countries could develop some shared consensus, it will help to rein in the military and limit their options."