Back in September, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley was responsible for an unprecedented American condemnation that received little domestic media coverage. In an unusual call on the envoys to the UN, Haley urged punishment of Myanmar’s military. The request followed weeks of violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar that led to the evacuation of more than half a million Rohingya to other countries, mainly Bangladesh. The accusations by American officials against Myanmar have been plenty, especially the criticisms of Nobel Peace Prize laureate, former democracy activist, and current leader of Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi. But can the United States, a world leader that has traditionally been very vocal about human rights abuses, do more to try to end the persecution of the Rohingya? No, unfortunately it cannot. Myanmar has the upper hand because Washington depends on the small country to achieve too many of its foreign policy goals.
From grassroots activists to Capitol Hill officials, many have claimed that the United States is not using the resources in its diplomatic toolkit strategically enough to put the right amount of stress on Myanmar. First of all, it took President Trump and the White House weeks after the start of the crisis, which at this point could becharacterized as ethnic cleansing, to denounce the attacks. Additionally, lawmakers have condemned outreach from the State Department as too little, too late and have pointed to the fact that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has made little noise about the expulsion of the historically marginalized minority. Members of Congress, such as Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Senator John McCain (R-AZ), have publicly pushed for sanctions against the government and wondered aloud why the United States does not reinstate the sanctions removed in 2016.
However, sanctions, and even too much agitation against Myanmar, would undermine and impede American foreign policy goals in Asia. If the State Department under Secretary Tillerson has proven anything, it is that the organization uses its political capital very conservatively, providing insight into why the United States government might have hesitated on disciplining Myanmar. Contrary to some untrue claims that the United States has not made any “major changes to its ties to Myanmar,” Washington has already moved to rescind invitations for Burmese security forces to attend US-sponsored events and ended US assistance program funding to all units involved in Rakhine. Actually, the reaction from the Trump administration is not that different from the response by the Obama administration during the 2015 Rohingya crisis. In addition to the fact that the structural divide between Suu Kyi’s civilian government and the independent military complicates the crisis, Washington needs Myanmar to continue to isolate North Korea and to prevent Chinese domination of the region.
In the middle of a drawn-out campaign to “maximize pressure” on North Korea, the United States has worked closely with allies and adversaries alike to increase support for harsh sanctions on Pyongyang and to end secretive commerce with the recluse country. Myanmar is notably one of the few remaining countries with ties to North Korea. The two countries have a long history of arms trade, and officials have advised that Myanmar’s military still regularly collaborates with North Korea. For instance, Myanmar was sanctioned under the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation act by the Obama administration, but frequent visits by diplomatic officials of the Trump administration with Myanmar leaders suggests that the United States is struggling to coerce Myanmar into ending all relations with North Korea. Alienating Myanmar with attacks on the government’s treatment of the Rohingya might encourage more resistance from Myanmar on ending defense collaboration with North Korea.
In an era of growing Chinese influence, the United States must worry about resource-rich Myanmar falling completely under Beijing’s sway. China recently became the biggest investor in Myanmar, which experts suspect may be a result of the country’s strategic location neighboring the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. If the American government uses the sanctions called for by Capitol Hill to punish Myanmar, it is likely that Myanmar will turn its back on its burgeoning diplomatic relationship with the United States.
The relationship between the United States and Myanmar is asymmetric, but not in the way that might be expected. At a time when the United States is not well-respected by the international community, mostly due to disparaging comments and empty bluffs from President Trump, the United States’ human rights demands of Myanmar would fall on deaf ears. Although taking strong action against Myanmar for its abuse of human rights may be the morally correct move, it would not be right for the United States’ foreign policy goals in Asia. Instead, the United States should take advantage of the ASEAN summit, set for early November, to use the collective sway of the region’s leaders to urge Myanmar’s civil government to negotiate with the military to end the persecution.
About the author: Anna Blue is the US Foreign Policy Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). She earned her BA in International Relations from Stanford University.