Will the Incoming Biden Administration Reshape US Policy Toward Myanmar?

By The Irrawaddy 21 November 2020

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss how US-Myanmar relations will develop after President-elect Joe Biden takes office, what foreign policy the new US administration will adopt towards Myanmar, and what Myanmar should do amid tensions between China and the US. Executive director of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security Dr. Min Zaw Oo has joined me to discuss this. I’m The Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.

The general election has been held in Myanmar. The US election that was held before the voting in Myanmar was interesting. Though the winner has not been officially announced, mainstream media has recognized Biden and Kamala Harris of the Democratic Party as President-elect and Vice President-elect. It will be interesting to see what policies the US government will adopt towards Myanmar’s government. The people of Myanmar were excited when they welcomed the historic visits of Democratic President Barack Obama to Myanmar in 2012 and 2014. So today people wonder if the new Democratic administration will build closer ties with Myanmar’s government as the Obama administration did. What is your assessment, Ko Min Zaw Oo?

Min Zaw Oo: I don’t think the Biden administration will introduce significant changes to US policy towards Myanmar. Under successive governments, whether Democrat or Republican, US policy towards Myanmar has always been based on democracy and human rights.

Before the 2010 election in Myanmar, President Obama instructed respective intelligence agencies, especially the CIA, and intelligence units at the Defense Department, Treasury Department and Energy Department to make assessments about Myanmar. Perhaps, it was because he expected that there would be some changes in Myanmar based on the 2010 election, though Congress didn’t believe it. Congress didn’t believe because it mainly listened to activists and their assessments. But the CIA could correctly assess that there would be changes in Myanmar after 2010.

The US was reviewing its Asia-Pacific policies at the time. And it reviewed its Myanmar policy based on that. It reached the conclusion that it could accept changes from an incoming government, even if it was formed by ex-generals. Then the U Thein Sein administration came into office in 2011 and initiated reforms. It halted the China-backed Myitsone Dam mega project, released political prisoners including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and enabled the National League for Democracy [NLD] to run in the next election.

Seeing those signs, the US dived into Myanmar, believing that the conditions met their policy requirements. The US sent a delegation led by Samantha Power, a member of the National  Security Council, to observe the situation in Myanmar firsthand ahead of Obama’s visit in 2012. The US delegation came twice before Obama’s visit and discussed policies with the Myanmar government. Myanmar’s government made promises about what reforms it would undertake. The Obama administration, even though Congress was watching with doubt, attempted a shift in its policy based on the assessment of intelligence agencies and ambassadors in Myanmar.

It is still difficult to say how much interest the incoming Biden administration will have in Myanmar. It will depend on three factors, I think. Myanmar is not on the list of the most important countries when it comes to US foreign policy. So the role of the Assistant Secretary of State for Asia is very important. His or her suggestions will be crucial in how the US shapes its policies toward Myanmar. And ambassadors in Myanmar will also play a factor. The US government may consider their views in designing its policy toward Myanmar. The third factor is the CIA, which regularly assesses Myanmar’s situation and reports to the US government. Based on those factors, the US government will consider changes in its policy towards Myanmar. But so far, there have not been significant developments.

As for Congress, it will continue to view Myanmar from democracy and human rights perspectives. So, few changes are expected, especially when it comes to relations with Myanmar’s military. In the time of President Obama, there were good opportunities to improve military ties with the US. At the time the NLD, then in the opposition, wanted the US to wait for more reforms before engaging with the Myanmar military. The US therefore did not engage much with Myanmar’s military.

After the NLD came into office, the Rakhine State issue broke out. After human rights violations and a mass exodus of people into Bangladesh—events that were loosely defined as genocide—the US government was very hesitant to engage with Myanmar’s military.

YN: Democratic administrations usually attach the utmost importance to democracy and human rights in formulating foreign policy. Like Obama, Vice President–elect Kamala Harris is a person of color. She is a Black woman and her mother’s family is from India. And she is very proud of that diversity. Now we are facing legal action at the International Court of Justice [ICJ] for alleged genocide against Muslims in northern Rakhine State. Some are concerned that the US government may put pressure on Myanmar because of that prosecution at the ICJ and the Rohingya issue. Do you think the new US government will take those things into consideration?

MZO: It won’t. The US views the ICJ and International Criminal Court [ICC] as institutions that threaten its sovereignty. It is concerned that it will harm itself if it points out a case like Myanmar’s. The US itself is involved in such allegations around the world because of its involvement in wars. There were alleged human rights violations in the past though they were not as serious as the ones Myanmar is facing. So, successive US presidents have never accepted the ICC. As to the ICJ, because it is a United Nations agency, the US may accept its findings to a certain extent. But it is unlikely that the US will put pressure on Myanmar at the ICJ.

However, it may press Myanmar on human rights and democracy issues in its bilateral relations with our country. The incoming Biden administration will not impose economic sanctions like the US did to Myanmar before. They recognize the transition Myanmar is going through and that there are certain problems within the process. Compared to Middle East countries, transition in Myanmar has proven to be peaceful and has reached a positive stage since changes began in 2011. The US will not impose economic sanctions that can negatively affect the transition in Myanmar. So punitive actions are unlikely. But the US may raise questions on issues such as the repatriation of refugees from Bangladesh, civil liberty and strengthening democracy in Myanmar. Still, it won’t use the same degree of pressure it employed during the time of military rule.

YN: Generally speaking, Myanmar is just a small country. Obama carried out his Asia pivot strategy, targeting China. The situation worsened under the Trump administration, which even kicked out Chinese firms like Huawei and TikTok and waged a trade war with China. It also conducted military exercises in contested waters in the South China Sea. And just before the election, Trump sold advanced weapons to Taiwan. The incoming Biden administration will have to handle the legacy of the Trump administration. In July, US embassies in six ASEAN countries including Myanmar issued statements criticizing Beijing [over its actions in the South China Sea]. And some are concerned that Myanmar will be stuck in the middle of the dispute due to its geopolitical location. What is your view on this? How will the US view Myanmar in such a landscape? Is it a threat or an opportunity for Myanmar?

MZO: US policy toward China under the Biden administration will not change much. There are strong anti-Chinese sentiments among Democrats in the Congress. So it is unlikely that there will be significant changes in the US policy toward China.

Regarding the question of whether the US will become more engaged with Myanmar in response to its tensions with China, we can take a look back at the level of engagement during the Obama administration. When the US implemented its Asia-Pacific policy under the Obama administration, it engaged more with the ASEAN member states. And it supported Myanmar’s reforms based on that. To the US, Myanmar is a very fragile state. The US security community has assessed that Myanmar will experience instability if it is dragged into tensions between the US and China. The US does not want that to harm Myanmar’s ongoing democratic transition. So the US will set limits when it engages with Myanmar regarding China.

One of the principles on which the US bases its engagement with Myanmar is that it needs to help Myanmar’s government prevent the Chinese government from acting irresponsibly in Myanmar. For example, the NLD government reviewed the agreement on the China-backed Kyaukphyu deep seaport project and signed a new agreement. The US government provided technical assistance through consulting firms in reviewing and rewriting the agreement. This is how the US plans to counter the Chinese government so that the latter can’t act recklessly for its interests in Myanmar. For the time being, the US does not seem to have plans to come to Myanmar and attempt to cut off the country’s ties with China. But then it has been making some preparations. It has prepared mainly in the aspect of civil society organizations in its policy toward China. Over the past five years, it funded some organizations in Myanmar reportedly to monitor China’s activities in the country. But the US will not trigger a tug-of-war with China in Myanmar because it could cause a great degree of instability in Myanmar.

YN: Thank you for your insights!

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