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U.S. Influence Wanes in Southeast Asia As China's Increases


At the center of the Biden administration's foreign policy is championing democracy. But in some parts of the world, like Southeast Asia, democracy is in retreat. In Myanmar, U.S. influence is waning. China's influence is growing. And early last month, the military staged a coup. Here's Michael Sullivan.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Is the Myanmar coup really the Biden administration's first major foreign policy test?

YUN SUN: I say this is unfortunate timing. I actually don't think this is a major test.

SULLIVAN: Yun Sun is director of the China program at the Stimson Center in Washington.

SUN: I mean, even today, coming to the foreign policy priorities of the Biden administration, I don't know if the Burmese coup will top five or even top seven.

SULLIVAN: But the Biden administration has acted quickly, imposing targeted sanctions on Myanmar's coup makers instead of broader sanctions that could hurt Myanmar's people in general. But are targeted sanctions the right way to go?

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: The question is, do you want to do good, or do you want to feel good?

SULLIVAN: Kishore Mahbubani is a former Singaporean ambassador to the United Nations and the author of the recent book "Has China Won?"

MAHBUBANI: If you want to feel good, you impose sanctions, knowing full well the sanctions will have no impact and will not change the course of what Myanmar is going to do. I mean, you're dealing with a group of very stubborn generals who are not going to be bothered by a few sanctions.

SULLIVAN: The Stimson Center's Yun Sun doesn't disagree.

SUN: I would say that there is no good option and that the options that we have available is unlikely to bring the result that we would like to see.

SULLIVAN: The best option available, Kishore Mahbubani says, is to engage Myanmar's neighbors in finding a negotiated solution and rebuild some of the trust lost during four years of the Trump administration.

MAHBUBANI: It's time for the United States to approach Asia with some degree of humility - that it may not have the right answers and that working with the right partners and listening to them will produce wonders.

SULLIVAN: Mahbubani says, despite publicly insisting that the coup be reversed, U.S. policymakers must know that's a tough sell in a region where authoritarian governments are the norm, not the exception.

MAHBUBANI: That's how the United States must learn to deal with Southeast Asia, deal with imperfect regimes and imperfect compromises. But at the end of the day, this produces peace and stability.

SULLIVAN: And despite their geopolitical rivalry, in this instance, many analysts say, the U.S. and China could find common ground.

THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: China has invested in the Aung San Suu Kyi administration. And over the last decade, China has made deals and peace with the Myanmar democratization.

SULLIVAN: Thitinan Pongsudhirak is director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. He says China and Myanmar's military, known as the Tatmadaw, have a long history of mistrust.

PONGSUDHIRAK: I think the Chinese leaders in Beijing - they have thought that they have figured out where Myanmar fits in their overall geostrategic jigsaw. But now with the coup, a coup is a bit of a spanner in the works for the Chinese because now they don't know how to deal with the Myanmar Tatmadaw again.

SULLIVAN: But in the end, says Richard Horsey, an independent political analyst based in Yangon, what outside actors want probably won't count all that much.

RICHARD HORSEY: This is about the military and the population of the country. And that's where this will be sorted out, I think - not in the hallways of international diplomacy.

SULLIVAN: For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAPA'S "EMPTY SPACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.
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