Myanmar Insurrection Tests Biden on China Democracy Support

"Vigil for Aung San Suu Kyi" (CC BY 2.0) by English PEN

Just days after his term as the President of the United States, Joe Biden is already grappling with a foreign policy crisis, an ongoing military coup in Myanmar that could place his administration at odds with China.

After weeks of rumbles and hints, the Myanmar military pushed out the still new civilian government before the newly elected parliament was set to convene last Monday. One notable civilian leader detained by Myanmar’s military is Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and longtime pro-democracy activist. 

How the President and his team react could affect how the new Biden administration will be viewed on the global stage in the months and years ahead. This situation will also present a rare opportunity to challenge the strictly bipartisan approach of Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Congress on how they will handle the matter. However, many of them have already expressed their desire to impose harsh sanctions and other punishments on the military leadership in Myanmar. 

On Monday, people familiar with the Biden administration’s internal deliberations told POLITICO that the United States officials appear to be frustrated by the developments. This is due to the time and how they are still scrambling to figure out how to respond and coordinate domestically and internationally.

Another debate is whether it is best to call what happened a “coup,” as one describes the scene as “chaos” instead. Summoning the term would challenge the U.S. to cut off aid to Myanmar’s government under the Foreign Assistance Act. The law states that the U.S. must “restrict assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.”

Then, late Monday, however, Emily Horne, a spokesperson from the National Security Council, dismissed such characterization, stating that the Biden administration is rather “clear-eyed, consistent and strong.” Horne also pointed out that the Biden administration has an “orderly process” and already released three separate statements, including one from President Biden himself.

In connection with this, Biden pledged to promote democracy as he will fight authoritarianism worldwide. However, now that he is facing a foreign policy crisis, this pledge will be put to the test. 

In a statement last Monday, Biden slammed the actions made by the Myanmar military and stated that the U.S. would take a look at its sanctions policies toward Myanmar, also known as Burma, “followed by appropriate action.”

Biden said in a statement, “we will work with our partners throughout the region and the world to support the restoration of democracy and the rule of law, as well as to hold accountable those responsible for overturning Burma’s democratic transition.”

The President also noted that the United States would be “taking note” of those who stand with Burma’s people in these tough times. 

However, when White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked whether that was a message to China, Psaki answered, “a message to all countries in the region and countries who, you know, will be asked to respond, or to consider what the appropriate response will be, in reaction to the events that have happened over the past couple of days.”

For years, the U.S. has been encouraging the democratization process in Myanmar while attempting to pull it out of China’s reach. In addition to this, U.S. lawmakers from both the Republican and Democratic parties have also been strongly advocating democracy in Myanmar. Including among them is imposing a sanction to the military, which ruled the country for decades. 

Danny Russel, an American diplomat who served as the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs during the Obama administration, said, “the crisis now does really sort of crystalizing the notion of competing models, the contrast between Biden’s defense of democracy and [Chinese leader] Xi Jinping’s maybe implicit or active support for authoritarianism.”

Meanwhile, two people who are familiar with the internal deliberations in the Biden administration stated that one ongoing debate is whether the United States should immediately impose sanctions on the Myanmar military such as a raft of economic sanctions, or whether they should first try other steps, such as sending a special envoy to Myanmar to try to coax the generals off their path. 

One source said that the U.S. can either “act right away or give them an ultimatum and act tomorrow, but it needs to be one or the other.”

When Biden ran for the presidency, he pledged to promote democracy and human rights on an international level. He even mocked former President Trump for appearing to shirk on these areas and show a response that leans more on authoritarian impulses.

Biden also promised to stand up against China, whose rise in the global arena has led to a growing bipartisan consensus in Washington that China’s authoritarianism is a long-term threat to U.S. influence.