Guest Column

Myanmar Crisis Could Reset Toxic US-China Ties

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 16 March 2021

The announcement that the Biden administration’s top diplomatic and security team would meet their Chinese counterparts in Anchorage, Alaska later this week has led to unusually high levels of optimism despite the existing vitriolic nature of their relationship. The world’s two most powerful nations will now have the opportunity to exchange views and perhaps reset that relationship, which was moored to the ground under former President Donald Trump.

For the world, the Anchorage meeting will have significant ramifications if the US and China are able to forge additional common positions on transnational issues. At this critical moment, however, for the sake of the region, the two could collaborate to bring much-needed peace and stability to Myanmar, one of the world’s most diverse countries, in a move that would be considered “extreme cooperation”. President Joe Biden used the term “extreme competition” to characterize US ties with China when he took the presidency in January. The pendulum could now swing the other way.

Indeed, a coalition of willingness between the two has become a possibility due to Biden’s new attitude and desire to see firm and well-defined parameters in the US relationship with China. This approach allows both powers to sit down and work out their core interests. In Anchorage, US Secretary of State Antony Blinkin and National Security Adviser Jack Sullivan will meet with China’s two most powerful figures in foreign policy, Yang Jiachi, a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo, and Wang Yi, state councillor and foreign minister. What they agree or disagree on could see a recalibration of their relations in a way that theworld has never seen before.

Before Trump’s reign, the US and China were already working together on the Paris Accord on Climate Change, the Iran nuclear deal, North Korea’s denuclearization and the multilateral trade arrangement, to name but a few. Under Biden, new areas of cooperation would be possible if both sides can foster mutual trust and respect.

As far as the situation in Myanmar is concerned, support from the US and China is crucial to designing a durable solution to the current quagmire. Statements from the UN Security Council and the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) over the last week strongly support ASEAN unity and centrality. It remains to be seen how ASEAN will be able to work with the conflicting parties inside Myanmar.

Since the February 1 coup, bloody clashes between protesters and the security forces in major cities in Myanmar have continued unabated, causing major concern about further loss of life and property. Worse, more killings could be ignited, as some armed ethnic groups have sided with the civil disobedience movement. They said they are ready to defend democracy under the National League for Democracy’s leadership.

From the junta’s point of view, the whole country must be placed under its control ahead of the scheduled Army Day on March 27, before any meaningful negotiation can take place. The junta therefore continues to use force to quell all possible shows of defiance.

After their informal meeting early in March, ASEAN leaders called on all sides to exercise the utmost restraint as well as flexibility, to de-escalate the situation and to release detainees, while also urging all parties concerned to seek a peaceful solution through dialogue via any constructive channels.

As such, all international and regional players have catalytic roles to play. The current COVID-19 pandemic requires all sides to work together to ensure that the virus does not spread further. The countries which share a common border with Myanmar are concerned that any major influx of Myanmar refugees due to the internal turmoil would further complicate the mitigation measures they have installed to prevent transmission of the coronavirus.

In particular, Thailand is now caught in a dilemma, as with more than 5 million workers from Myanmar, any disruption within the migrant community would have far-reaching repercussions on the host’s domestic political and economic situation. That helps explain why Thailand has adopted an extremely cautious diplomatic approach to the junta. Bangkok is also mindful of its own past political development, which required doable roadmaps and international support to end the current impasse.

So far, the West has exercised restraint in imposing sanctions against Myanmar, knowing all too well that broad sanctions against the junta would end up punishing the common folk. For the time being, the US and EU have targeted senior military officials who were involved in the power seizure. South Korea has stopped arms sales to the junta, while Australia has suspended defense cooperation. New Zealand was the first Western nation to end all high-level contact with the junta and banned their leaders from visiting the country.

The Anchorage meeting provides an excellent opportunity for the US and China to recalibrate their new relations. Both can compete and cooperate in the areas they see fit and which serve their mutual interests. The situation in Myanmar could be a game-changer in Alaska.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

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