China and the U.S.’s political relations are heavily strained, even more so with the turmoil over Taiwan. However, China has a major economic interest in Myanmar, and the political outcome of the country may determine the tide of future events. America’s level of engagement in the political proceedings of Myanmar may prove to be the litmus test China needs to test America’s willingness to intervene.
Amongst the myriad of crises that flood the headlines, one issue falls to the sidelines: Myanmar, the southeast country plagued with political unrest. This past February, the news was filled with the military coup d’etat that overthrew the elected officials and seized control of the government. Since then, the country has once again fallen out of the public eye with the culmination of the unrest in Afghanistan and the constant turmoil over Taiwan. But Myanmar is a pivotal pawn in the game between China and the U.S. Relations between Myanmar and the US have long been established, as well as China’s economic interest in the country. This article analyzes both the U.S.and China’s response to the military coup in February, China’s massive economic interest in Myanmar, and the implications if the US does not take action against the Tatmadaw for their heinous war crimes against the Burmese people.
China and Myanmar’s Economic History:
China and Myanmar’s economic relations first picked up in the late 1980s after economic sanctions established by western investors after the military coup of 1988. Today, China is Myanmar’s number one investor. “In 2019, China occupied a 31.7 % share in its exports and a 34.7 % share in its imports.” Despite Myanmar’s constant attempt to distance itself from China’s growing influence and economic power, the constant political turmoil has moved Myanmar closer into China’s arms. The Rohingya Crisis in 2018 pushed them further towards China, as Myanmar received many sanctions condemning the violence the military enacted on the minority group. Currently, China is Myanmar’s largest arms dealer, seconded only by Russia. Additionally, Myanmar’s tin, which is used for circuit-board soldering, and other natural minerals comprise 12.5% of the global production and over half of China’s domestic supplies. These statistics exhibit China’s deep-seated interest in Myanmar’s geopolitical status. To maintain its economic prowess in Myanmar, China attempts to keep Myanmar out of the West’s orbit.
China’s Response to the Tatmadaw:
The response China has offered to the public eye regarding the military coup has changed depending on who seems most likely to come out on top. China’s initial response was to immediately support the military coup. China walks a fine line because Myanmar’s political unrest is directly linked to its economic future with Myanmar. While Myanmar totters on the edge of becoming a failed state according to the US, China will not stand idly by to watch its assets crumble in the wake of the junta’s brutality. Additionally, the violence has touched areas just inside China’s southern border in the provinces of Yangon, including destroying Chinese factories in the conflict. By covertly supporting the junta and thereby providing a greater likelihood of political victory, China has confirmed the economic value of Myanma. China downplayed the severity of the violence against the citizens of Myanmar, claiming that the military junta was merely a shift of power. Even when the United Nations General Assembly called for an arms embargo against Myanmar in June, China has not ceased to supply arms to their military, the Tatmadaw.
America’s Response to the Tatmadaw:
While the Biden administration promptly condemned the Tatmadaw’s brutality towards the peaceful protesters after its coup, there has been little in the way of actual action and support from the National Unity Government and other civilian militias. The Biden administration quickly supported the NUG through sanctions and embargoes, as one of the primary interests of the administration is the advancement of human rights around the globe. “[The] U.S. interests in Myanmar are two-fold: restoring civilian rule and making sure the country does not fall under the complete sway of China.”However, promises and policies without action do not assist either America or Myanmar. By not taking decisive action against the Tatmadaw with policies and global assemblies, America is indirectly validating the junta. Rather, if America explicitly, in both theory and action, took decisive measures to support the NUG, they would show both China and Myanmar that America does not tolerate the violation of basic human rights and the use of brutal military force against innocent civilians.
Myanmar is a crucial asset in the future proceedings of America-Chinese relations. Though America and the Biden administration have condemned the junta and its brutality and supported by word the NUG and other ethnic groups fighting the Tatmadaw, sanctions can only do so much. If America provides more humanitarian and economic support to NUG and other such organizations, China will see the measures the U.S. will take to fulfill their word. China will not easily release its hold on Myanmar, for the economic and political advantage is too great. However, if America does not act now in the means that are available, America exhibits to China its hesitancy to reinforce its sanctions with force if need be. America must stay alert and proactively engage with the unfolding conflict within Myanmar; otherwise, by giving China an inch, they will proceed to take the mile.
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