The coup in Myanmar on February 1 will not only present itself as the Biden administration’s first foreign policy challenge, but is also likely to serve as a litmus test for the Australia-India-Japan-U.S. Quad and its ability to coordinate common (or, at the very least, congruent) policy positions on many pressing regional challenges. In many ways, the Tatmadaw’s power grab will also serve as a spotlight on the extent to which (if at all) shared values – in terms of a common commitment to democratic practices, and a concomitant shared position on penalizing those who don’t adhere to them – act as a glue for the Quad.
If the grouping is, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently described it, an important part of the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific policy toolkit, and if the development in Myanmar is indeed considered a key regional contingency by Biden and his team, the extent to which future U.S. policy about Myanmar’s military regime is reflected in the positions of the other members of the Quad will serve as a first real test of the grouping’s efficacy since its resurrection in 2017.
As my colleague Sebastian Strangio wrote earlier today, for a considerable period of time the United States assumed that its foreign policy could, simultaneously, balance American interests and values. How the Biden administration would handle the Myanmar coup would reveal which side of the equation it would tilt toward going forward: harsh sanctions will draw the Tatmadaw closer toward China to devastating strategic effect; playing it mild would expose the administration’s pro-democracy and pro-human rights rhetoric as hollow. Biden’s calculations are likely to be further influenced by the fact that the latter course of action will have purchase among Republicans, but might anger the progressive wing of his own party.
Judging by the Scott Morrison government’s statements in the past, shared “liberal democratic values” play an important role in Australian foreign policy even as it pursues a robust counter-China posture across the economic, technological, political, and military spheres. The Morrison government’s choices when it comes to Myanmar will, therefore, be similar to the Biden administration. It is likely that both governments will converge on a common position. (In a February 2 tweet, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne noted that in a conversation with U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, the two had discussed “events in Myanmar.” The statements issued by both countries following the coup are also quite similar.)
But if Australia and the United States could be on one side of the divide inside the Quad when it comes to Myanmar, India and Japan would be on the other. India, in a consistent display of prudence in recent years, has eschewed exhibiting regime-type preferences in its neighborhood, including in Myanmar, as long as its core security interests were preserved. This is despite the fact the country’s post-colonial identity has included championing democratic values and movements in the past. The Tatmadaw has enjoyed close relations with India over the course of the last decade or so, even when the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar was in full swing. A 2010 five-day India visit by Than Shwe, then leader of the military junta, is but a case in point.
New Delhi has also taken a stance on the Rohingya crisis that strikes many as condoning the conduct of the Myanmar government and the military, so much so that it eschews the use of the word “Rohingya,” preferring the coy formulation “people of Rakhine State.” But periodically – and especially in the recent years – New Delhi has broken with historical tradition and has spoken of democracy as a shared ground on which India’s foreign relations could be advanced.
As long as an uneasy peace between State Counsellor Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy and the Tatmadaw persisted – and the constitutionally-secured power-sharing agreement between the civilian government and the military did not stand to be upset –New Delhi could eat its cake and have it too. It could maintain a nominal, symbolic preference for a democratic government in Myanmar while continuing to placate the country’s military in order to secure cooperation against anti-India secessionist groups operating out of Myanmar’s west , as well as disincentivize it from swinging further north, toward China.
The February 1 coup effectively stands to upset this careful balancing act. As a former Indian government official told the Hindu’s Suhasini Haidar, “The choice between India’s democratic ideals, that it has expressed in Nepal and Maldives recently, and ‘Realpolitik’, to keep its hold in Myanmar and avoid ceding space to China, will be the challenge ahead.”
But if realpolitik is the path New Delhi takes, and India stays substantially silent about the February 1 events beyond the already issued, notably oblique, statement, it should hope that the Biden administration will adopt a congruent course too — or, at the very least, not pressure India to change course. But, on the flip side, pushing a harder line against the Tatmadaw would invariably complicate India’s efforts to placate its Northeast, especially at a time when reports suggest that China may be seeking to exploit the situation in that restive region as the overall China-India relationship inches towards becoming an openly hostile one.
Japan’s predicament when it comes to Myanmar is also geopolitical, and its policy – like India’s – shaped by the shadow of China. As Japanese scholar Yuzuki Nagakoshi put it in these pages January last year, “Fierce competition exists between the Asian economic giants – mainly Japan and China – over Asia’s ‘last frontier,’ Myanmar,” a competition that has led Tokyo to actively turn a blind eye toward the Rohingya crisis and the excesses of the Myanmar military. News reports have already noted Japan’s delayed reaction to the February 1 coup, with Nikkei Asia noting that Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide is “wary about commenting on Myanmar’s internal affairs.”
Under such circumstances it is extremely unlikely that the Quad will be able to coordinate policy responses to the Tatmadaw’s actions. (Note that despite two Quad ministerial meetings so far, the grouping is yet to issue a joint statement, which makes a public convergence on the Myanmar crisis a distant hope to begin with, even with all else being equal.) While many would argue that it would be unfair to expect that the Quad can – or should – indeed do so, given the essentially flexible and ad-hoc nature of the arrangement, lack of a common position on Myanmar will run counter to the hyped expectation that a new security architecture for the Indo-Pacific could be built around that grouping.