Why Joe Biden Faces a Difficult Balancing Act in Burma
Already China is vying for influence and hopes to take advantage of the situation.
As is typical for a new administration’s first month in office, a foreign policy crisis is already upon us: a military take-over in Burma. This Indo-Pacific test will likely determine not only democracy’s fate in Burma, but whether the new administration’s read of the region is compatible with its nascent counter-China strategy.
By most accounts, the world was caught off-guard by the Burmese armed forces’ detention of the country’s State Counselor and democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. These illegal detentions were the result of the military’s displeasure with last November’s election in which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) resoundingly defeated nearly every military-backed candidate. After detaining Suu Kyi and her lieutenants, the Burmese military went about employing an all-too-familiar playbook. Within hours, the military assumed control over domestic television stations and cut off nearly all international media. At the same time, internet and phone services were disrupted and many financial institutions were forced to close, in a situation reminiscent of previous upheavals in the country. With a curfew now in effect, the Burmese military has succeeded in curtailing Burma’s slow march towards democracy without firing a single shot.
As news of the crisis reached Washington, the U.S. Department of State and White House referred to the situation as a “coup” and announced sanctions against members of Burma’s military. Meanwhile, China released a more measured statement, noting that Beijing was in the process of “understanding the situation” and remained hopeful that “all sides in Myanmar appropriately handle their differences under the constitution and legal framework and safeguard political and social stability.” For their part, Burma’s neighbors all issued hands-off declarations consistent with their long-standing policies of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.
While the political situation in Burma remains fluid, the United States’ strong initial response to the crisis may jeopardize the likelihood that it could be asked to mediate a potential settlement between Burma’s military and the NLD. Ultimately, a successful response to this crisis must take into account the United States’ relative lack of economic and political leverage over Burma, as well as the fact that Burma’s military leaders are unlikely to respond favorably to any language which borders on ultimatum. What’s more, while U.S. sanctions may have proven useful in inducing democratic reform in Burma in the past, China is all but certain to ignore such sanctions under the guise of preventing a humanitarian crisis on its border.
To that end, there may still be time for the United States to re-assess its strategy and promote a constructive path towards dialogue, in effect allowing both sides to air their grievances. Such a diplomatic framework would also provide the new administration with an opportunity to better synchronize its messaging with other Indo-Pacific allies, many of which are hesitant to embrace sanctions or any other steps which could push Burma closer to Beijing.
Meanwhile, China is carefully pursuing its own great-power strategy, one that plays to its relative strengths and long-term objectives, including its efforts to reduce U.S. influence throughout Southeast Asia. Beijing, with Moscow’s backing, has already blocked a draft United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the situation in Burma while reiterating its interest in finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Beijing’s approach is rooted in two key realities. First, apart from a popular uprising, which at present appears unlikely, China understands that Suu Kyi has almost no leverage over her captors. Second, China rightly assesses that the last thing most Burmese citizens want is for the situation to devolve into violence, having already lived through decades of trauma at the hands of their military captors.
Thus, Beijing’s focus on promoting dialogue, whether genuine or not, all but assures that China will play a key role in determining Burma’s future regardless of whether the military junta remains in power. If influence is the name of the Indo-Pacific game, then China is smart to rack up as many wins as possible by playing the part of the region’s chief diplomat, even if it continues to engage in other provocative acts in and around its near abroad.
In a possible worst-case scenario for the United States, Burma’s military leaders, under pressure from new U.S. sanctions, could strengthen their economic ties to China, which could lead to a significant increase in China’s hold over the country. Such measures might include the potential establishment of a Chinese military base in Burma, providing China with a powerful platform to project into the Indian Ocean and police vital sea lanes in the area. Meanwhile, the United States may find it difficult to reverse its initial sanctions threats, as well as build a de-escalatory ladder which provides Burma’s military with a face-saving way out of the crisis.
Sanctions can no doubt be an incredibly powerful tool of diplomacy, but they are at their most effective when wielded at the right time and in the right manner. The same can be said for public messaging to our friends and foes alike. This incident in Burma is further proof the United States and its allies will need to think carefully about when and how to use both when competing in China’s backyard.
Craig Singleton, a national security expert and former U.S. diplomat, is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) and China Program. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.