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02/03/2021

US is challenged in Myanmar

US is challenged in Myanmar

Experts interpret recent events unfolding in Myanmar as the US’ military, political and economical loss of power and the rise of China in the Asia Pacific.

Myanmar is an energy-rich country in Southeast Asia, calling attention especially with its oil and gas reserves. Additionally, Myanmar is neighbor to India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand, thus located geostrategically important for energy corridors.

Having been a British colony for a long time, Myanmar has gained independence in 1948 and since than been targeted by Western attempts of destabilization that wanted to fight Chinese and Indian development in the region. The US and Europe have also used the Arakan conflict for creating tension and intervention.

The US has displayed a special focus on Myanmar when Obama developed a strategy concerning the Asia-Pacific. Obama’s Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton visited the country in 2011, where she declared that the US was going to test Myanmar on whether the country was ready to give up military dictatorship. US representatives offered to lift the UN sanctions on the country and provide economical assistance, and in exchange they pressured the Myanmar government to cut its cooperation with the DPR of Korea on military and nuclear affairs. The Obama Administration was additionally aiming to block China’s growing influence in the region by US-Myanmar relations. Within this context, Myanmar, although having historical relations with Beijing, has cancelled a Chinese dam project.

During the Trump Administration, the US has imposed a sanctions regime on Myanmar using the Arakan conflict. The Myanmar – China relations were targeted, but the sanctions regime pushed the Myanmar government even closer to Beijing. China became Myanmar’s biggest trading partner.

Following the sanctions, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the toppled government, has deepened economic relations with China. In spite of that is she still known for pursuing good relations with the West, in contrast to the country’s military, and has received the Nobel Peace Prize.

DEVELOPING RELATIONS WITH CHINA AND RUSSIA

On the other hand, Chief of Staff of the Myanmar Army, Ming Ang Hlaing, who was sanctioned in the past by the US and Britain, has very good relations to China and Russia. During his visit to Myanmar last month in the context of Belt and Road, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has also met with Ming Aing Hlaing, applauded the military’s “national revitalization” and called the two countries “brothers”.

After the military’s take over in Myanmar, Beijing refrained calling the events a “coup d’état” in public declarations. The Chinese government, that has good relations with both the government and the military, made the following declaration:

“China is Myanmar’s friendly neighbor. We hope that all sides will solve their differences within the legal and constitutional frame and protect political and social stability.”

The Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu has also visited Myanmar on the 21st of January. Shoigu met with General Min Aung Hlaing and made a statement as well:

“We consider our meeting today as an opportunity to advance our military cooperation. Whatever restrictions these hard times impose on us, we hope to deepen the relations between our defense institutions.”

General Hlaing on the other hand thanked Shoigu and stated that “Russia has supported Myanmar in all difficult moments and especially during the past 4 years, just as a true friend does.”

WHITE HOUSE COULD NOT ESTABLISH CONTACT TO THE MYANMAR ARMY

US representatives admit that they were not able to establish relations with the Myanmar military.

An unnamed representative of the US State Department told to ABC News that U.S. had “extremely limited to virtually non-existent” ties to the military of Myanmar.

An analysis published in US news provider POLITICO describes the events in Myanmar as “the most serious foreign policy affair” Biden faces after taking office. According to POLITICO has the National Security Council’s spokesperson, Emily Horne, called the US commander in the Pacific, Admiral Phil Davidson to establish communication with the Myanmar Army via military channels. But communication with the Myanmar Army couldn’t be established due to the lack of such channels, told a representative from Department of Defense to POLITICO.

THE US LOSES INITIATIVE

The US President Biden’s reactions to the take over, his statements of “we will act”, “we will impose sanctions” are interpreted by experts as a change of balance of power in the region, with the US losing power and China gaining strength.

In its analysis on the events in Myanmar, Bloomberg cites the journalist, Sebastian Strangio, specialized on South East, with the following words:

“Recent events in Southeast Asia have shown that with China’s growing power, and democratic backsliding in the West, the U.S. and other Western countries no longer have the moral authority or economic and political means to set the normative agenda in the region.”

Strangio points out that one of the main strategies of the US against China’s rise was to support ‘the region’s democracies’, but adds that the US has lost that ground following the Congress assault.

CHINESE DEMONSTRATION OF POWER

Prof. Mehmet Seyfettin Erol, Head of the Ankara Crisis and Politics Research Center (ANKASAM- for its initials in Turkish) interprets the events in the context of Asia-Pacific and connected to the power struggle between the US and China.

Erol says the military’s take over indicates Chinese power in Myanmar and the region and states “the coup d’état is a demonstration of power directed at the US and some western governments. The White House’s call and reaction has less to do with human rights and democracy considerations in Myanmar and more connected to their fear of losing an important position to the Chinese.”

STRUGGLE FOR POWER IN THE ASIA – PACIFIC

Erol underlines that the events in Myanmar should be evaluated within the context of new power struggle in Asia-Pacific and the country’s geopolitical and strategic location, and adds:

“The US has a strategy to strangulate China via the Strait of Malacca. Myanmar is an example of China’s successful counter strategy of a friendly neighborhood. China constructs ports and pipelines in Myanmar and thus, bypasses the Strait of Malacca in terms of transit security. At the same, China seems to have gathered an important initiative in terms of ‘energy security’ by importing gas from Myanmar and neighboring Bangladesh.”

SANCTIONS THREAT MAY FAIL

US President Biden remembered that, following 10 years of progress towards democracy they had lifted the sanctions on Myanmar, adding, “the reversal of this progress will make reconsideration of sanctions and taking according steps necessary”.

Two days ago, Washington qualified the take over as a coup d’état by the military and announced a halt to foreign aid to the country.

The Jerusalem Post, citing a US businessman active in Myanmar, reported that some companies and investors might plead against sanctions to keep economic ties open.

In the same article former US government representatives and experts state that Washington has only limited influence on the generals that took over the power. It is reported that the generals rely on strong, local companies and have very small interests overseas that would be affected by sanctions. Speaking to the Israeli newspaper, “Simply piling more sanctions on the Burmese military won’t solve this problem,” says Daniel Russel, top US diplomat for East Asia under Obama.

The analysis published in POLITICO on the other hand proposes to the Biden Administration to introduce “secondary sanctions” on Non-US companies active in Myanmar. The analysis expects that on that way, several non-US companies and investor might be pushed to move away from the country.

BIDEN MIGHT SEEK AN OPPORTUNITY

Fan Hongwei, expert on Myanmar affairs in China’s Xiamen University, had stated to the Global Times that US might consider sanctions on Myanmar. The expert added that the Biden Administration might seek an opportunity to cause repair relations with Myanmar by causing tensions here and at the same time pressuring China.

THE MILITARY HAD TAKEN OVER THE POWER

Following the military’s act, President Win Myint, Chairman of the State Council and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi and other party leaders have been taken into custody.

The Myanmar military has declared that it has taken the power due to fraud in the elections and it will keep governing the country for one year.

Media organs that belong to the military reported that the Chief of Staff of the Army, General Min Aung Hliang has taken over the country’s leadership. The military has declared a state of emergency that will prevail one year, meanwhile the military will rule the country.

General Myint Swe has been appointed as Interim President by the military.  Military representatives have declared that elections will be held in the coming future and the new government will rule the state. It has also been reported that Election Commission will be reformed and the parliamentary election results reexamined during the state of emergency.

The Foreign Minister and the country’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi is reported to be held captive in her house in the capital city of Naypyidaw.

Elif İlhamoğlu
Elif İlhamoğlu is political scientist and  journalist (Turkey). She is studying for PHD on the political science and international relations department at Istanbul University (Middle East studies). She visited Middle East countries, Syria, Lebanon, Iran several times and did interviews with the leaders as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hilal al-Hilal Secretary General of the Syrian Ba'ath Party.

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