Coup poses a China-US conundrum

Editorial | Mary Ma 3 Feb 2021

The military coup in Myanmar is the first international crisis facing US President Joe Biden.

Yet it is uncertain how far his allies will go along with him to respond in one voice to the unfolding drama in light of Aung San Suu Kyi's passionate defense of the army's ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas.

With the halo of democracy that blessed Suu Kyi in the old days long gone, the Western world's condemnation of the coup will likely remain no more than that as she is no longer hailed as a heroine.

Will Biden pass his first major foreign affairs challenge? Good luck to him.

Coup mastermind, senior general Min Aung Hlaing - Myanmar's commander-in-chief - is notoriously remembered for his role in the Rohingya cleansing.

Since the crackdown on the ethnic group, he and his family have been hit with international travel restrictions. Apart from this, he remains largely obscure to outsiders.

The crucial question is where the general will position Myanmar in the changing world order.

Geographically, the country could not be more strategically important to both China and the alliance led by the US.

Shortly after the coup, the Biden administration reacted with threats to reimpose sanctions. Those were lifted after the military regime conceded to allow democratic elections that returned Suu Kyi - then still beloved by the West - as the country's de-facto leader.

Will Biden carry through with his threat to reimpose the sanctions on a country that has already seen its goddess of democracy transform into an entirely different character?

While this is probable, it would push Myanmar even closer to China than during the Suu Kyi era, when relations were already strong.

Myanmar is strategic because it borders China on the land in the east and the Indian Ocean in the west.

This gives China an important corridor to reduce its dependence on the narrow Strait of Malacca for oil and gas supplies.

During times of peace, there is no problem sailing from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea through the Strait of Malacca. But if a military conflict erupted in the South China Sea, the US navy could easily block the Strait of Malacca to cut off supplies bound for China.

China has already built pipelines across Myanmar for energy supplies from the oil-rich country, with cooperation expanded after Suu Kyi came to power.

In 2017, she signed a framework agreement with President Xi Jinping to extend the corridor further to the coastal city of Kyaukpyu in the west to construct a deepwater port and pipeline extensions.

Construction of the strategic infrastructure has been making progress.

It is not difficult to understand that the Biden administration, out of political correctness, has voiced concern about the coup.

Beijing, on the other hand, has reacted in a much lower profile with Xinhua News Agency describing it as merely a "cabinet reshuffle."

With so much at stake, both are trying to understand the senior general's bottom line.



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