Photo Credit: Reuters. Myanmar’s ambassador to the UN, Kyaw Moe Tun, urges action against the military coup at the end of his speech to the General Assembly.
Myanmar’s coup earlier this year showcased the fragility of democracy and how quickly things can change for the worse. The United States rightly condemned the coup and imposed sanctions against its perpetrators. US sanctions are a necessary condition to stop the coup, but they are not a sufficient condition: China must be brought to the table. While China is far from a defender of democracy, or even human rights, it does care about stability on its borders. Perhaps more importantly, it cares about stability in its areas of investment. So far, however, China’s response has been muted because of its opposition to international interventions. The United States must convince China that the real costs of instability are far worse than the possible costs of external intervention.
The United States imposed sanctions against Myanmar 10 days after the February 1 coup. These included export restrictions, freezing government assets, and targeting individuals and organizations associated with the coup. While proper and timely, it does not seem that these sanctions are seriously making the military reconsider. The military continues with mass arrests, maintains its internet blackout, and, of course, has not relinquished power. American sanctions are undoubtedly necessary pressure and an important boost to the opposition. However, it alone is insufficient to end the illegal takeover. For that, the people of Myanmar need China to act as well.
China wields enormous economic influence in Myanmar, not to mention its presence along their long land border. China is Myanmar’s largest trading partner, lender, and one of its largest sources of foreign investment. Further, Myanmar is an important part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Projects for the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor alone are worth billions of dollars. While American economic power is important, Chinese economic power dominates. This power and influence must be leveraged against the military if the takeover is to be stopped. This has so far not been the case.
China has given a muted response to the coup. China blocked a harsh UN condemnation the day after due to a lack of faith in international intervention. China’s foreign ministry calls for stability but skirts around mentioning violence, something that Chinese media also refuses to cover. Xinhua News, a government-run press agency, called the coup a “major cabinet reshuffle.” China is effectively turning a blind eye to the matter. It is treating it as an entirely internal affair, depicting it as business as usual. This is not in China’s interest, but it has taken this course because it fears the possible instability of intervention more than the instability we observe today.
China’s fear of international interventionism overshadows the real costs of instability in Myanmar. The “ghost of Libya” past still haunts international politics as conservative regimes like China fear the destabilizing effects of international intervention. While Myanmar’s coup is bad enough, international intervention could make things much worse rather than better, at least in China’s view. This is not the case. The instability in Myanmar threatens the future of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the billions of dollars it has already invested. Critical infrastructure such as Sino-Myanmar oil and gas pipelines are particularly vulnerable. External intervention is not costless, of course, but it must be made clear that Myanmar is not another Libya.
China must be reassured that Myanmar is not another Libya. US sanctions specifically target individuals and organizations involved in the coup and humanitarian aid continues. There has been no talk about military intervention. Even if there was, how would this be accomplished? Unlike Libya, NATO is not a major force in the region. Unlike in 2014, there is a global pandemic still underway which keeps US attention at home. If the U.S. seriously wants to end the instability in Myanmar, China must be convinced that this is not an attempt to secure an American beachhead on its flank. The costs of intervention are lower than China fears.
Even if China is reassured, it is unlikely that it will take strong measures against Myanmar’s military, but it would still be a step in the right direction. After all, China is still skeptical of external intervention in general. Rather than following the U.S. in imposing economic sanctions, China would probably take another route consistent with this foreign policy concept. China could request the release of political prisoners, condemn specific acts such as the use of live fire against protesters, or it could press for an end to the state of emergency. While these all seem like minor policies, they are certainly more productive than calling the coup a cabinet reshuffle. Small actions that subtly exert pressure against Myanmar’s military will, at the very least, show that China does not approve. If the military sees that it stands totally alone, it is more likely to concede.
Myanmar’s coup can only be reversed with Chinese cooperation. While the U.S. has led the way on sanctioning the illegal takeover, American influence in Myanmar simply does not compare to China’s. Because China fears the implications of external intervention, it has so far given a muted response. This can only change if China is convinced that the potential costs of external intervention are lower than the real costs of violence and instability.
 “FACT SHEET: Biden-Harris Administration Actions in Response to the Coup in Burma.” The White House. The United States Government, February 11, 2021. whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/02/11/fact-sheet-biden-harris-administration-actions-in-response-to-the-coup-in-burma/#:~:text=Immediately%20after%20reports%20of%20the,people%20of%20Burma%20at%20this.
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