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Quad’s virtue-signalling won’t help the people of Myanmar

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People flash a three-finger salute as they take part in an anti-coup night protest at Hledan junction in Yangon, on March 14, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

The first meeting of the so-called Quad grouping of the United States, India, Japan and Australia has been billed as the start of a “democratic” bulwark against China’s growing influence in Asia. Its more immediate outcome may have been virtue-signalling by the four countries with much dirty laundry to sanitise. They have pledged to deliver a billion Covid-19 vaccine doses throughout the Asia-Pacific by the end of 2022, a number so high it’s mind-boggling given the current monopolisation by Western countries of the distribution of doses for their own citizens.

The United States has been especially embarrassed by reports of its hoarding of vaccines and blocking developing countries from manufacturing cheaper diagnostic tests and vaccines by obtaining a waiver on intellectual property rights with the World Trade Organization.

Meanwhile, all four Quad nations have jointly issued a statement vowing to restore democracy in Myanmar after the military coup at the beginning of last month, and its subsequent killings of dozens of protesters.

In fact, India and Japan have been mostly quiet about the coup, given the sensitivity of their close relations with the country, much like China has been. But while the close ties between Beijing and the military junta have been constantly played up in the foreign news media, India and Japan have been given a free pass, as usual. However, given their regional influence and close ties to Myanmar, it makes far more sense for India, Japan and China – and the Asean member states led by Indonesia – to work together to mediate between the conflicting parties in the country and obtain a less tragic outcome.

Alas, that is unlikely because Washington has put its foot down against its Asian allies from working with Beijing. Sadly, denouncing the military coup and demanding the return of democracy won’t change the facts on the ground.

After China and Russia, India is the most significant arms seller to Myanmar in the last decade. Geographically, Myanmar is crucial to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s so-called Act East policy, to expand trade and economic integration with Southeast Asia, including showcase infrastructure projects such as the sea and road link known as the Kaladan multimodal transit-transport facility between the two countries. And as a member of Asean, Myanmar can offer maritime security cooperation with India in the Bay of Bengal.

Meanwhile, Japan has long been a rival with China for investment and financial aid in Myanmar. Since the turn of the century, it had consistently avoided following Western countries, led by the US, that had imposed sanctions against the country.

It’s hardly surprising that India and China have both avoided criticising the military, known as the Tatmadaw, too harshly. Recent actions taken by Japan may be seen as a move towards tacitly recognising the military government. Last week, the Japanese embassy in Myanmar identified one of the representatives of the military it met as “foreign minister”.

Given the competing interests of the “great powers” of Asia and the US, it’s more than likely the military-backed government will stay in power for more than the one year it has promised. And all the virtue-signalling, duly reported by the foreign media, will only appeal to the uninformed without any positive impact for the people of Myanmar.