Home / Asia and Pacific / Trouble at mill: Japan-Myanmar relations and implications of the coup for Japanese foreign policy

Trouble at mill: Japan-Myanmar relations and implications of the coup for Japanese foreign policy

18 September, 2021

By Luke Austin – Research Assistant

Seven months have passed since a coup d’état which rocked Myanmar, with the death toll reportedly reaching over 1,000 civilians. Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services Min Aung Hlaing declared himself Prime Minister of Myanmar and announced his intentions to rule the country under a lengthened state of emergency until the holding of elections. Myanmar’s military (the Tatmadaw) is firmly in charge of domestic and foreign affairs and will not be going anywhere else soon. What complicates matters even further is that the previous government, ruled by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), has been involved in numerous political and humanitarian controversies. These range from the exclusion of the Rohingya Muslim minority “from voting or standing for election” to an outright crisis characterised by violence from the Myanmar military against the Rohingya.

In 2007, the late Japanese IR scholar and former director of the Japan Institute of International Affairs Seki Tomoda identified three factors that influenced the political situation in Myanmar: (1) rebels, (2) the armed forces, and (3) the international community. As of the early 2020s, it can be remarked that little has changed, especially given the re-ignition of internal armed conflicts within Myanmar. Take, for example, the rebels. The National Unity Government’s (NUG) armed wing, the People’s Defence Force (PDF), has formally declared war against the military junta. Another rebel group, the Karenni Army, commemorated the 73rd anniversary of its founding in August by promising to “fight to the end” against the military junta and create a federal union that involves other organisations representing ethnic groups across the country. The Karenni Army has also formed an alliance with the NUG against the junta. The importance of such organisations representing different ethnic groups across a nation as ethnically diverse as Myanmar can in no way be understated: many of the natural resource deposits in Myanmar are found in areas inhabited by minority ethnic groups.

The armed forces occupy such an important position that the Tatmadaw “functions as a parallel institution to the state”. Beijing’s support for the military junta adds a complex geopolitical dimension to the situation. Regardless of the doubts surrounding the nature of Beijing’s position regarding Myanmar, Beijing remains the military junta’s most active supporter. Chinese support originally took two forms: 1) referring to the coup not as a coup, but rather as a “major cabinet reshuffle”, thereby understating the nature of the radical change which has taken place; and 2) using China’s position as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to veto a UNSC statement condemning the coup and mute criticism at the United Nations Human Rights Council. It must not be forgotten, however, that China has been economically cultivating Myanmar as a potential ally for quite some time: by 2012, Chinese foreign and direct investment (FDI) in Myanmar accounted for roughly a third of total Chinese global direct investment. Furthermore, China and Myanmar have made bilateral agreements concerning several projects linked to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). More recently, China has provided assistance in the implementation of a new cybersecurity law “to stamp out dissidents and pro-democracy protests on the internet”.

That brings us to the wider international community and its role in the situation in Myanmar. India actively developed security cooperation with Myanmar in recent years and has refrained from condemning the coup. Bilateral relations between the US and Myanmar have, for the most part, remained rather frosty: the US has historically taken the most comprehensive sanctions against Myanmar. The US also took sanctions against the new military junta rather swiftly. The European Union’s (EU) Myanmar policies from the late 1980s to the early 2010s have been described as changing between a “carrot” and a “stick” approach: the “stick” approach has made a comeback as demonstrated by the recent imposition of a third round of sanctions against eight individuals and four entities. Myanmar joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997, bringing both political and economic gains for Myanmar. Myanmar’s membership in ASEAN, however, has not necessarily led to an improvement in its relations with other ASEAN members, notably Thailand.

In the face of a new increase in coronavirus cases in Japan and criticism over his decision to allow the holding of the Summer Olympic Games , on 3rd September Suga suddenly announced his withdrawal from a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership election which is due to take place on 19th September and, in doing so, ended his own tenure. Despite guarantees of support from several leading LDP factions such as that of LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, Suga faced some fierce opposition. This opposition included Fumio Kishida: an LDP House of Representatives member who has previously served in an intimidatingly wide array of roles, including Minister for Foreign Affairs and Acting Minister of Defence. Kishida even heads his own LDP faction: the Kōchikai, which was founded in 1957 and is thus almost as old as the LDP itself. The other three declared candidates are vaccine minister Tarō Kōno and former internal affairs ministers Sanae Takaichi and Seiko Noda. Kōno announced his candidateship on the same day as Suga’s withdrawal from the election, indicating that Suga’s withdrawal came due to pressure from heads of the LDP factions before general elections are due to be held by 28th November.

Nevertheless, the situation in Myanmar represents both danger as well as opportunity for Japanese foreign policy. In June, the Japanese parliament openly condemned the Tatmadaw’s February coup. Earlier that month, Suga joined other leaders of the G7 at the Carbis Bay summit in condemning the coup and the subsequent violence in Myanmar, echoing the initial condemnation and call “for the immediate and unconditional release of those detained arbitrarily” expressed by the G7 several weeks after the coup took place. The Abe administration, on the other hand, was criticised for allegedly contributing to the exacerbation of the Rohingya Crisis out of geopolitical interests. Geopolitical instability in the region could jeopardise the sea lane from the Gulf through the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea, on which Japan is highly dependent for imports of energy resources. It must be remembered that bilateral Japan-Myanmar relations actually flourished during the sanctions era: during this period the largest “donor representative” in Myanmar was the Japan International Cooperation Agency’s (JICA) Myanmar branch and almost 50% of the total ODA (official development assistance) received by Myanmar between 1970 and 1988 originating from Japan.

Tougher action against the military junta may therefore help to convince Japan’s allies that its Myanmar policy is not one of cynical realpolitik, but rather one that is based on more positive aspects such as human security and regional stability. After all, Japan has been referred to as “a quiet leader in the Indo-Pacific” on account of its growing role in the formation and maintenance of Asia’s liberal order, as exemplified in Japan’s instrumental role in reviving the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) following the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the former agreement.

Japan employs a kakehashi (bridging) approach between repressive regimes and the wider international community, yet Japanese actions would most likely have to be coordinated through multilateral institutions. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) is an ideal example: Japan and fellow Quad member India share “a deep understanding of the complex dynamics at play in Myanmar’s power struggle”, giving both countries surprising leverage over domestic actors such as the Tatmadaw.

Evidently, the COVID-19 pandemic has combined with the military coup to create a very unsavoury situation in Myanmar. This is characterised by a multitude of inter-related issues, ranging from oxygen shortages to a hampering of Myanmar’s vaccination efforts. With the arranged delivery of Chinese and Russian vaccines reportedly facing delays, as well as India struggling to function as the Quad’s main distributor of vaccines in the Indo-Pacific as a result of its own COVID-19 pandemic, Japan could potentially extend its vaccine diplomacy in Southeast Asia to include Myanmar. Considering recent doubts over the effectiveness of the Sinovac vaccine, such a move would be beneficial for Japan, the Tatmadaw and the people of Myanmar.

It may also be prudent for Japan and the Quad as a whole to consider ethic movements such as the Karenni Army in their engagement with Myanmar: it has been argued that an equal amount of attention should be paid to ethnic relations as to democratisation in Myanmar. Singapore’s foreign minister has highlighted ASEAN’s lack of success in resolving the Myanmar situation, so the Quad may provide a more successful alternative. Nevertheless, at the G7 summit Suga expressed Japan’s intentions «to work on the (Myanmar) armed forces through its own channels while still referring to «constructive involvement in ASEAN efforts» as part of a positive response. It has also been suggested that the Suga administration could also develop dialogue between Myanmar and an even more inclusive and recognised institution: the United Nations.

The future shape of Japan’s Myanmar policy (as can be said for much of Japanese foreign policy) depends on who wins the LDP leadership election. Despite their membership of the same political party, the candidates’ respective political positions vary considerably. Noda is affiliated with the progressive wing of the LDP. While Kishida heads one of the LDP’s more “dovish” factions, he has supported consolidating Japanese defensive capabilities in light of Chinese ventures around Taiwan and Japan’s southern islands. Kono has made similar recommendations, despite having been branded a “liberal maverick” in the past. Takaichi is evidently a conservative of a more hawkish nature as reflected in her regular visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine. Then there are her commitments to protecting concepts that are loosely defined yet clearly tinged by Takaichi’s own personal nationalism, including “the life and property of the people”, “territory and resources” as well as “the nation’s sovereignty and honour” as expressed on her official website. Takaichi has also managed to secure potentially decisive support from Abe. Whoever Suga’s successor may be, the situation in Myanmar will no doubt occupy a place on their foreign policy agenda given the geopolitical, economic and other implications of allowing the Myanmar situation to spiral out of control.

Image: A protest against the coup

About Luke Austin

Luke Austin has recently completed his MA with distinction in Governance and Global Affairs at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). He wrote his master’s dissertation on the levels of consistency and contradiction between actual policy-making and political discourse in the framework of EU-Russia relations. Luke also holds a BA in Japanese and Russian from the University of Leeds. He has previously interned for the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in Moscow.