Don’t Push Myanmar Into China’s Orbit

Marvin Ott is a professor of national security policy at the National War College. The views expressed are his own

Defying U.S. objections, the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations has voted to admit Myanmar (the former Burma). When asked why they took this controversial step, ASEAN leaders referred repeatedly to “strategic considerations.” “Strategic” is a code word for China. The Southeast Asians fear that Myanmar is becoming a Chinese satellite; it is a fear that Washington should share.

The Clinton administration has imposed tougher economic sanctions against Myanmar, citing continued human rights abuses by the junta in Yangon. It is a morally satisfying and politically popular initiative. It is also bad policy.

It is not often that the theater of world affairs produces a drama of good versus evil as pure and gripping as the one being played out in Myanmar. This is a government that has massacred prodemocracy demonstrators in 1988, suppressed political dissent, engaged in large-scale forced labor, probably collaborated in heroin trafficking and annulled the results of a democratic election while imprisoning the leader of the democratic movement, Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.


Not surprisingly, U.S. policy toward Myanmar has reflected moral outrage. Washington has regularly condemned the actions of the ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council, has halted all bilateral economic and military aid, has suspended trade privileges, has opposed lending by international financial institutions and has tried to rally support for such policies among other countries, including a proposed international embargo on arms shipments to Yangon. Members of Congress have vied with editorial writers in urging still harsher, more punitive sanctions.

Since the earliest days, U.S. foreign policy has exhibited two often conflicting tendencies. The first is a normative, “idealist” impulse to use policy to further American political values, notably democracy and human rights. The second is a geopolitical “realist” approach that stresses the pursuit of national interest defined largely in terms of power and economic advantage. In the case of Myanmar, the normative approach has governed policy for most of the last decade in a uniquely pure form. This has been possible because the U.S. has viewed Myanmar as geopolitically irrelevant. There have been no significant national-interest costs to a policy of principle.

But this is changing and the agents of change are China and ASEAN. Following the upheaval in 1988, the beleaguered and ostracized regime in Yangon turned to the one country more than ready to overlook its transgressions: China. Beijing has become a near monopoly supplier of military equipment to Myanmar while the country’s north has been flooded with Chinese consumer goods and immigrants. Chinese engineers are building roadways and bridges in Myanmar and press reports suggest the presence of Chinese intelligence installations on the coast. In short, Myanmar is becoming something very close to a Chinese satellite. This has occurred at a time when the strategic landscape in Asia has begun to shift with the growth in Chinese economic and military power. Chinese leaders have increasingly portrayed Southeast Asia as China’s natural sphere of influence.

All this has been watched with growing concern in Southeast Asia. Uneasiness concerning China’s strategic aims is the principal motive behind ASEAN’s decision to admit Myanmar. ASEAN is trying to offer Myanmar a strategic alternative to its dependency on China before the dragon’s embrace becomes unbreakable. But this effort at “constructive engagement” conflicts with Washington’s policy of pressure and ostracism. In this there is no small irony because the American strategic interest vis-a-vis China in Southeast Asia is identical to ASEAN’s. Someone is not thinking clearly, and it is not ASEAN.

Any policy, if it is to be maintained, must meet a basic test. Is it working? Does it have a reasonable prospect of doing so?

The current policy of isolation and sanctions fails that test. The essential repressive character of the Myanmar regime has remained unchanged over three decades despite heavy foreign pressure. Deeply unpopular and oppressive, it nevertheless holds apparently firm control over the army and ethnic Burman population. Quarantining Myanmar has simply reinforced the regime’s xenophobia.


Ironically, successful sanctions would weaken an already vulnerable economy, leaving the junta with little choice but to rely more heavily on Chinese support and on revenue generated from increased opium and heroin production. Isolation is further obviated by a host of U.S. friends and allies in ASEAN that increasingly oppose that policy.

Myanmar is not an Asian reincarnation of South Africa. The South African white elite was vulnerable to Western sanctions for a number of reasons, including the fact that the surrounding black African states supported their imposition. No such regional support exists in Southeast Asia.

Washington can and should remain outspokenly critical of abuses in Myanmar. But there are security and other national interests to be served. Let’s recognize that present U.S. policy is not working and has no serious prospect of working. It is time to think seriously about alternatives.