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Japan in balancing act with U.S. over sanctions on Myanmar

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TOKYO

With the United States announcing plans to reimpose sanctions on Myanmar over a coup earlier this month, Japan remains cautious about invoking punitive measures against the Southeast Asian country, fearing sanctions may affect Japanese businesses operating there and drive the military closer to China.

While the European Union is also considering slapping sanctions on Myanmar, Japan has been stepping up efforts to persuade Myanmar’s armed forces, which seized power in the Feb 1 coup, to free civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other detainees and return to the democratic process.

Anti-military protests have been growing in Myanmar, and if the United States and the European Union go ahead with sanctions and urge Japan to follow suit, that would put Tokyo, a key U.S. ally, in a difficult position, according to experts.

Japan has long maintained ties with Myanmar, making it the only country among so-called Western nations to have connections with both the military, known as the Tatmadaw, and Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy.

In a sign of Japan’s close ties with the two sides, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi met with both Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing, military chief who led the coup, when he visited Myanmar last August.

“If the United States and other countries impose sanctions on Myanmar, they will not only increase the clout of China, a Myanmar neighbor, but could also result in the loss of a key security base in the Indo-Pacific region,” said Yohei Sasakawa, chairman of the Nippon Foundation in Tokyo.

Sasakawa headed a Japanese monitoring group to the November election in Myanmar, which gave the NLD an overwhelming 396 of 476 seats in parliament — a major factor that is believed to have driven the Tatmadaw to overthrow Suu Kyi’s elected government.

“If the United States goes for economic sanctions, Japan as its ally will be in a difficult position,” he wrote on a blog dated Feb. 2.

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden said the United States will sanction Myanmar military leaders — with a first round of targets to be identified soon — and impose strong export controls to force the military to reverse course.

Kavi Chongkittavorn, a Bangkok-based regional affairs expert, said Japan should send a “strong message” to Myanmar to release Suu Kyi, and that Tokyo should urge Washington to pursue “constructive engagement” with the military without putting back in place significant sanctions it imposed on Myanmar during decades of dictatorship.

“The United States and Japan have to coordinate their approaches — a good cop and a bad cop approach,” said Kavi, a senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, in an email.

Other experts have also warned against hastily deciding on sanctions against Myanmar, a country that had been promoting democratic reforms since the first civilian government was voted in in 2015.

“Targeted sanctions, already in place, can continue against the generals, and broaden to others involved in the state of emergency. Signals must warn against them taking more oppressive steps,” said Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

Min Aung Hlaing and several other generals were already slapped with U.S. sanctions for their involvement in the crackdowns on the Rohingya Muslim minority.

“In contrast, if they show signs of relenting, then dialogue should be fostered. But broad sanctions, as previously used by the West, should be avoided,” Tay said in an email. “They harm ordinary citizens. They also will push the military to rely more on China.”

China has been strengthening ties with Myanmar by helping construction projects such as pipe lines and ports under the Belt and Road Initiative, a massive cross-border infrastructure scheme critics say is intended to draw countries deeper into Beijing’s economic orbit.

Beijing has declined to condemn the generals, insisting that other countries should not interfere in Myanmar’s internal affairs. China’s official Xinhua News Agency referred to the coup as a “major cabinet reshuffle.”

Besides continuing dialogue and engagement, some scholars were more in favor of Japan clearly expressing its views about the Tatmadaw’s takeover of government.

“Japan and other countries provided support to hold what is regarded as a fair election,” said Mie Oba, a professor of international relations at Kanagawa University in Japan, referring to the November election.

“But if Myanmar’s military calls it rigged, Japan must protest it,” Oba said in an interview. “I think the Japanese government should halt ongoing aid projects, do something close to a sanction.”

According to the Foreign Ministry, Japan extended massive official development assistance totaling about 190 billion yen ($1.8 billion) in fiscal 2019, by far the largest among the 30-member Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Since Japan does not have a law that requires the government to impose sanctions on individuals on the basis of human rights violations, the only feasible option Japan has is to halt or reduce its economic assistance to Myanmar.

In the past, Japan suspended new projects in Myanmar over three occasions in connection with the house arrest of Suu Kyi but resumed full-fledged economic assistance from April 2012 following the country’s shift to civil rule in 2011.

Private investments have poured into Myanmar in line with the democratic reform. As of January this year, 436 Japanese companies were operating in the country, up from 53 in March 2012, according to the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Myanmar.

“Japanese businesses have invested into the Thilawa Special Economic Zone near Yangon and elsewhere so they would certainly call for a stable relationship with Myanmar, even under the military rule, and I can understand their logic and feeling,” Oba said.

“But the Japanese government must think about whether that is appropriate for itself,” she said.