Washington and Brussels recently levied new economic sanctions against certain Myanmar military officers in connection with the atrocities of the Rohingya crisis unfolding in the country’s western Rakhine state, where thousands of the Muslim minority group have died and hundreds of thousands more have fled across the border to Bangladesh. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, has called for the country to be referred to the International Criminal Court.
While these efforts would seem to indicate an emerging international consensus on the need to confront the government of Aung San Suu Kyi and the military commanders, some countries oppose condemnation and insist on engaging Naypyidaw. Most notably, Myanmar’s neighbors China and India have important roles to play in the impoverished and conflict-stricken country’s reconstruction and political stability. The contrast in their policies of engagement compared to Washington and the European Union’s more activist stances highlights possible room for improvement on the part of Western nations, whose humanitarian impulses have failed to influence Aung San Suu Kyi and the military’s calculations.
Beijing and New Delhi, both of which have maintained high-level visits and exchanges with Naypyidaw, prioritize engagement and investment over values-based or human rights diplomacy to address the Rohingya crisis. China, in the three-stage plan it proposed last November, and India, in a recent statement by the Minister of External Affairs, emphasize economic development as the solution to the Rakhine state crisis.
Some elements of the development push are already underway. China and Myanmar are close to inking a deal on building an economic corridor through Rakhine, while India is making progress in the construction of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway. Additionally, the World Bank offered $100 million in aid to Myanmar for job creation and enterprise development.
Meanwhile, Washington has wavered, with policymakers expressing grave concern over the country’s deteriorating human rights while members of Congress are mulling new sanctions. As the United States finds its pressure tactics unable to meaningfully improve conditions for the Rohingya, it is worth considering alternative modes of diplomacy. China and India’s approaches may shed some light upon a productive engagement that the Trump administration could adopt.
Beneath the veneer of alignment, Beijing and New Delhi are battling for influence in Myanmar.
India has slammed China’s Belt and Road Initiative for its questionable financial practices and the “debt burden” that it would create in Myanmar. Moreover, it has particularly objected to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which crosses Pakistan-administered Kashmir, a territory India also claims. Furthermore, the two “dueling ports” in Myanmar – the China-proposed Kyaukphyu deep-sea port in western Rakhine, and the India-built Sittwe port in Rakhine’s capital city – are already stirring unease over the tense relations between the two countries.
Despite these adversarial aspects, China and India’s converging economic and security interests in Rakhine have driven them to pursue a similar track of pragmatic engagement.
Sandwiched between China and India, Myanmar is a key interface for the two countries’ ambitious infrastructure initiatives – part of Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative and Modi’s Act East policy. Besides apparent interests in economic gains, both countries worry that local terrorism may affect their investments in Rakhine or even spill over into their own territories. Recognizing the two countries’ symmetric interests, the Chinese state-run Global Times has called for China and India to jointly lead the efforts in solving the Rohingya crisis.
Competing for Influence: How Washington Can Adapt
In June, echoing China and India’s enthusiasm about the infrastructure push, a high-level Myanmar official remarked, “if Rakhine is prosperous, nobody is going to squabble about what religion you belong to.”
The tendency to reduce the drivers of the ethno-religious tensions to poverty is problematic. Rakhine’s chronic under-development is not out of coincidence, but because of institutional structures that systematically disenfranchise it. To achieve long-term stability and political reconciliation, sustained efforts to build inclusive legal, educational, and cultural infrastructures are crucial; so are measures to ensure fair distribution of wealth gains to locals. It remains to be seen whether Beijing and Delhi’s engagement and investment strategy represent a sustainable solution to the Rohingya crisis.
Given Naypyitaw’s aversion to Washington’s maximalist demands and hectoring statements regarding the deterioration of human rights in Myanmar, the Trump administration must adjust its policy if it is to retain any leverage. As Washington and European countries denounce Suu Kyi and Myanmar’s armed forces with increasing intensity, what the civilian government needs most is diplomatic and economic support.
First, Washington should abandon its maximalist demands on Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership and instead adopt more strategic flexibility. A one-track devotion to sanctions and denunciation means that all other priorities, including economic development, must queue up behind them. This is not to say that human rights do not matter nor that U.S. policy should jettison its values. But the maximalist and values-based approach is neither working in the best interests of U.S. influence, nor alleviating the plight of the Rohingya. Promisingly, senior White House official Matt Pottinger recently encouraged American investment in Myanmar, which appears in line with China and India’s “development first” approach.
Second, the U.S. government should separate its long-term interest in promoting liberal values from near-term humanitarian needs. Again, we are not encouraging the United States to abandon its human rights concerns, but it must consider a more pragmatic approach that engages with Myanmar decision-makers rather than alienating them as well as their people. The Rohingya and Rakhine citizens on both sides of the Myanmar-Bangladesh border require urgent political solutions to bring an end to violence and rebuild the lives and homes of those displaced by conflict. Competition for influence in Myanmar undeniably forms the strategic backdrop, but in the long-term, supporting peace and development are smarter strategies to win and keep influence.
Hunter Marston (@hmarston4) is a Carnegie Council Robert J. Myers Fellow and writes widely on Myanmar and U.S. foreign policy.
Abigail Chen (@abigailchen1997) is a student at Cornell University.