Myanmar’s army chief challenges Biden, bets big on China




By seizing power on Monday, Myanmar’s generals are providing US President Joe Biden with an early test of his efforts to counter the appeal of China’s authoritarian model in Asia.

Army chief Min Aung Hlaing, who was bumping up against a mandatory retirement age this year, already faces sanctions from the US and UK due to a brutal crackdown against Rohingya Muslims that has led to accusations of genocide.

Beijing, meanwhile, has shown him respect. In a meeting last month with the 64-year-old general, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called the two countries “brothers” while praising the military’s “national revitalization.”

“While the coup will no doubt come with costs, the army clearly views them as affordable,” said Sebastian Strangio, author of In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century.

“Recent events in Southeast Asia have shown that with China’s growing power, and democratic backsliding in the West, the US and other Western countries no longer have the moral authority or economic and political means to set the normative agenda in the region.”

A key part of the US strategy to counter China’s rise has been an effort to rally democracies in Asia to back a “free and open” region that contrasts with Beijing’s single-party autocratic rule.

Yet democracy advocates in places like Malaysia and Thailand have lost ground without consequences under the presidency of Donald Trump, whose own bid to overturn the US election results prompted a deadly mob to storm the Capitol.

Although ousted Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s status as a democracy icon has taken a hit due to her defence of the army’s actions on the Rohingyas, she still has key allies in the US Congress.

Suu Kyi, who was detained along with other key leaders, issued a statement calling on the country’s 55 million people to oppose a return to “military dictatorship.”

Biden now faces a dilemma in crafting a response that will punish Myanmar’s generals without hurting the wider population, which suffered under sanctions imposed in the 1990s before the country’s shift toward democracy a decade ago.

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