Just days into his tenure, President Joe Biden already is grappling with a foreign policy crisis — a military coup in Myanmar — that could put his administration at odds with China, the country he has identified as America’s top long-term rival.
How Biden and his aides react — whether quickly, in concert with allies, or with a show of U.S. strength — could affect how the new U.S. administration is viewed on the global stage in the months ahead, especially as it is presented with the broader challenge of confronting the rise of authoritarianism in countries across the globe.
The situation also presents a rare opportunity for a staunchly bipartisan approach from Washington, D.C., given the interests of Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Congress, many of whom have already expressed a desire to impose harsh sanctions and other punishments on Myanmar’s military leadership.
After weeks of hints and rumbles, the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, staged a coup against the civilian government just as the newly elected parliament was set to convene on Monday. One of the many notable civilian leaders detained by the military is Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and longtime pro-democracy activist. Suu Kyi’s reputation has been tarred in recent years by her unwillingness to criticize the military over its vicious crackdown on Rohingya Muslims, but nonetheless Suu Kyi is seen as a vital player in keeping democracy progressing in Myanmar, where she serves as the de facto leader of the government.
In a statement Monday, Biden blasted the takeover and said the United States would review its sanctions policies toward Myanmar, also known as Burma, “followed by appropriate action.”
“We will work with our partners throughout the region and the world to support the restoration of democracy and the rule of law, as well as to hold accountable those responsible for overturning Burma’s democratic transition,” Biden said.
He also noted that the U.S. would be “taking note of those who stand with the people of Burma in this difficult hour.” Asked during a press briefing on Monday whether that was a message to China, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said it is “a message to all countries in the region and countries who, you know, will be asked to respond, or to consider what the appropriate response will be, in reaction to the events that have happened over the past couple of days.”
The United States has for years encouraged the democratization process in Myanmar while seeking to pull it from China’s orbit. U.S. lawmakers from both parties have strongly advocated for democracy in Myanmar, including through sanctioning the military, which ruled the country for decades.
The crisis now “does really sort of crystallize the notion of competing models, the contrast between Biden’s defense of democracy and [Chinese leader] Xi Jinping’s maybe implicit or active support for authoritarianism,” said Danny Russel, a former Asia hand during the Obama administration.
A crisis, a scramble and ‘chaos’
On Sunday evening and into Monday morning, U.S. officials at the State Department and National Security Council were scrambling to nail down the details of exactly what was happening in Myanmar.
The military leadership in a televised address early Monday, local time, said it had seized control of the government and was declaring a state of emergency for one year.
Two people familiar with the Biden administration’s internal deliberations said one ongoing debate is whether the U.S. should immediately impose some costs on the Myanmar military, such as a raft of economic sanctions, or whether to try other steps first, such as sending a special envoy to the country to try to coax the generals off their current path.
Biden administration officials are in touch with senior European officials about coordinating a response, one of the people said. Both of the people said coordinating with U.S. allies in Europe as well as in Asia will be crucial to bringing pressure to bear on Myanmar’s generals, especially if China stands by the military leadership. The United Nations Security Council is expected to discuss Myanmar in a session Tuesday, and many expect China to stonewall any serious action in the wake of the coup.
One of the people familiar with the Biden team’s deliberations argued that there’s no time for “shuttle diplomacy.”
The U.S. “can either act right away or give them an ultimatum and act tomorrow, but it needs to be one or the other,” the person said.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers and aides see the issue as ripe for a rare bipartisan response, most likely in the form of a sanctions package that would incentivize a return to democratic rule, aides said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has long championed democratic reforms in Myanmar, issued a statement Monday morning calling on the country’s military to immediately release Suu Kyi “and turn back from this abyss.” He said the Biden administration “must take a strong stand” and said the U.S. should “impose costs” on those impeding Myanmar’s democratic transition.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the incoming chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, explicitly called for strict economic sanctions to be imposed if the military does not pull back.
Asked to describe the appetite for swift congressional action, an aide said lawmakers could take initial steps on legislation as soon as this week. Senior State Department officials are briefing members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as well as the House Foreign Affairs Committee later Monday afternoon.
It’s been “chaos” so far inside the Biden administration, with serious annoyance over the timing of the coup, people familiar with the deliberations said. That’s in part because top positions at places like the State Department — such as assistant secretaries of State for East Asia and for human rights — have yet to be filled on a permanent basis. Plus, some of the lower-level officials now in place are fairly new to the Myanmar beat.
The early official statements from the Biden administration, released Sunday evening, hinted at divisions in how the United States should react.
The White House statement, from Psaki, demanded that the Myanmar military release detained civilian leaders and accept the results of a recent election. It also warned Myanmar’s generals that if they did not reverse the coup, the United States will “take action” against those responsible. The White House statement noted that Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, had briefed the president on the matter.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s statement, meanwhile, expressed concern over the coup as well, but Blinken notably did not warn that the United States will take any steps to punish the perpetrators.
Russel, however, warned against drawing conclusions about internal fights over the policy. He noted that Blinken, Sullivan and other top officials, including top Asia official Kurt Campbell, know each other fairly well. Russel said the administration is not likely to see the dilemma in binary terms — especially when it comes to the issue of China’s influence over Myanmar — and would probably opt for a set of policies with plenty of nuance. He pointed out, for context, that Myanmar’s generals are very nationalistic, and one reason they chose to pursue democratic reforms in the past was to get out of China’s grip.
A test of Biden’s commitment to democracy
Biden ran for the presidency promising to promote democracy and human rights on an international level. He chided former President Donald Trump for appearing to shirk on those areas and for showing authoritarian impulses at home, including looking for ways to overturn his loss to Biden.
Biden also pledged to stand up to China, whose rise on the global stage has led to a growing bipartisan consensus in Washington that the communist-led country’s authoritarianism is a long-term threat to U.S. influence.
Myanmar’s military ruled the country for decades. But in the 2000s, it began a democratization process that ultimately led to relatively free elections. Suu Kyi, whom the military kept under house arrest for many years, was freed, and in 2015 her party won general elections.
The United States under the Obama administration encouraged the democratic transition in Myanmar, and former President Barack Obama visited the country and lifted many sanctions that had been placed on it as incentives to keep up the progress.
The Myanmar military is alleging that elections held in November, and which Suu Kyi’s party overwhelmingly won, were marred by fraud.
The reality is that Myanmar’s democratic transition was never completed. Even after Suu Kyi and her partners won elections, the military retained control over key ministries and critical industries, and never submitted itself to civilian control. Its power has put Suu Kyi on the defensive.
In 2017, the Myanmar military waged a deadly crackdown on Rohingya Muslims, pushing some 700,000 of them into Bangladesh. Some international leaders and many experts have described its actions as genocide. But Suu Kyi has avoided criticizing the military’s actions.
Blinken has promised to conduct a review of whether the crackdown constituted a genocide. Under former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the State Department conducted such an investigation. But Pompeo chose not to say whether what happened was a genocide, a term with international legal implications.
One reason, State Department officials indicated at the time, is that Pompeo did not want to push Myanmar closer to China.
Natasha Bertrand contributed to this report.
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