'It will backfire on everyone': U.N. democracies walking a fine line with China on Myanmar

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NEW YORK — The United Nations Security Council is meeting this morning behind closed doors to debate how to respond to the military coup in Myanmar, but few diplomats expect the body to agree on a common position, amid a split between Western and Asian members of the Council.

The United Kingdom, which is leading the Security Council through February, proposed on Monday afternoon that the Council express “deep concern at the state of emergency imposed by the Myanmar military on 1 February, and the detention of members of the legitimately elected civilian Government, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, and civil society,” according to a draft text obtained by POLITICO.

The draft text calls on Security Council members to “condemn the military coup” and for coup leaders to “immediately release those unlawfully detained” and allow unhindered humanitarian access throughout the country.

The strongly worded statement is likely to face significant amendments, and may be vetoed by China at Tuesday’s debate, two European diplomats said.

The debate over how to respond to the Myanmar crisis highlights an asymmetric clash between a China that has wired the U.N. in recent years, and a Biden administration that doesn’t even have its ambassador in place yet. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Biden’s appointee to lead the U.S. U.N. mission, faced tough questions on China before the Senate Foreign Relations committee on Jan. 27. She has described China as a “strategic adversary” but stopped just short of calling China’s systematic repression of its Uighur population a “genocide.” Thomas-Greenfield awaits a committee vote to send her nomination to the Senate.

Beijing has stayed on the sidelines so far. “China is a friendly neighbour of Myanmar’s. We hope that all sides in Myanmar can appropriately handle their differences under the constitution,” Wang Wenbin, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson said Monday. China’s state-run Xinhua news agency described the coup as a “major cabinet reshuffle.”

Barbara Woodward, the U.K.’s ambassador to the U.N., admitted Monday that “we don’t have specific ideas on the measures. We will discuss whatever measures we think will be helpful.”

While the U.K. is leaving all options open for reaching an agreement, British officials said they expect that it could take 48 hours before any substantial agreement on how to respond to the coup is reached. They are determined to use the global backlash against the coup to make a strong case for restoring Myanmar’s democratic government. The end result, however, may be watered-down — a statement on the need to avoid violence and releasing civilians from custody.

“I wouldn’t expect any serious Council product,” said International Crisis Group’s Richard Gowan on Tuesday’s debate. “This sort of closed meeting is really a chance for the diplomats to probe each other a bit and signal if they are open to more serious U.N. discussions,” said Gowan, who believes that it may take several meetings and rounds of quiet diplomacy before China is ready to join a consensus.

There are pitfalls with every way forward.

Myanmar has long split the Security Council, most recently over the violent crackdown against the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority, which many consider to be genocide.

After witnessing a toxic dynamic in debates over the Syrian civil war, in which Russia repeatedly blocked efforts to sanction the Damascus-based government over its conduct during the 10-year conflict, democratic powers have tried to avoid antagonizing a permanent — and veto-wielding — Council member.

“If the Western group plunges into a big fight with the Chinese, it will backfire for everyone,” said Gowan.

China is not keen to align with democracies over the Myanmar coup, but it remains in an uncomfortable position: blocking U.N. action risks efforts to repair bilateral relations with the Biden administration.

The common ground appears to be that both the U.S. and China are skeptical of the coup leaders. Beijing has achieved “warm relations with Aung San Suu Kyi, that have deepened as Western countries distanced themselves from her,” said Chatham House’s Champa Patel. Chinese officials are skeptical of the military’s independent streak that “sought to balance against Chinese dominance in the country,” Patel said.

That leaves open the possibility of a Security Council agreement in coming days, though one tightly focused on avoiding violence and returning stability to Myanmar.

The possibility of broad sanctions appears confined to whatever shared position democratic allies can achieve, setting up an early test of how well the Biden administration and EU countries can coordinate their diplomacy.

The EU’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, said Monday that the EU would work to “ensure a coordinated response.” The EU has had fraught relations with Aung Sung Suu Kyi over her refusal to condemn the crackdown against Myanmar’s Rohingya minority, with the European Parliament in 2020 formally suspending her from the Sakharov Prize Community, it’s top human rights award, which she was given in 1990.

The history of global measures against Myanmar is mixed.

Western countries downgraded diplomatic relations with Myanmar after the military’s 1988 coup, to little effect. Aung Sung Suu Kyi remained under house arrest until 2010, despite EU sanctions from 1991 and a U.S. ban on investments from 1997. Comprehensive sanctions in place from 2003 eventually contributed to Myanmar’s transition to democracy from 2011, but “there is nothing to suggest adopting such tactics now are enough to stop the military going ahead and imposing their rule,” said Chatham House’s Patel.

The Biden administration put forth the option of unilateral sanctions Monday, egged on by bipartisan Congressional support for a tough response to the coup. In announcing “an immediate review of our sanction laws and authorities, followed by appropriate action,” Biden called the coup “a direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy and the rule of law.”

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) the incoming chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee called for “strict economic sanctions, as well as other measures.” Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that Myanmar’s military had repeatedly “failed to prove it can act as a reasonable and trustworthy player on the world stage.”

The State Department and U.S. Mission to the U.N. did not respond to a request for comment.

While the military has not resorted to violence thus far, the International Crisis Group said that mass protests and violent military crackdowns on demonstrators are a real possibility. “If it stands, the military’s seizure of power will not only upend Myanmar’s slow and difficult democratic transition but also could lead to deadly violence,” the group said in a written statement.

Myanmar’s a country awash in weapons, with deep divisions across ethnic and religious lines, where millions can barely feed themselves,” tweeted historian Thant Myint-U, grandson of former United Nations Secretary-General U Thant, and the situation has only worsened during Covid-19.

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