Japan’s Dilemma in Dealing with the Junta in Myanmar
Prof Rajaram Panda

The military takeover of the democratically elected government and the dubious civilian-military power sharing agreement has been criticised by the global community. At a time when Myanmar was navigating through its nascent democracy after decades of military rule, the sudden military intervention has put the clock back to where it was before. Even when opponents and supporters of the coup continue to scuffle on the streets of Yangon and elsewhere in Myanmar,1 the prospect of Myanmar’s return to the democracy anytime soon looks like a mirage. This analysis shall examine what has been Japan’s response as it is actively engaged in economic activities in that country for a long time by way of development aid and investment and how it is navigating through this dilemma.

Suga’s Delayed Response

Following the coup, while the international community reacted sharply almost immediately urging the military to return to the democratic path, Japan was slow to join the global chorus denouncing the coup.2 At a time when the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken were speaking out to advance democratic ideals in the Indo-Pacific through the Quad framework, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s delay in addressing the coup stood out conspicuously.

With deep economic and strategic interests with the Southeast Asian nation, Japan was unusually hesitant to react immediately as expected unlike the US and other democratic nations and probably wanted to secure its own interests. Unlike its Group of Seven peers, which urged the military to restore the nation’s democratically elected government and release State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, Japan was cautious in even expressing opinion and joining the US in implementing sanctions to avoid jeopardizing the relationship it has built with the military over decades. There was also a perceived fear that excessive punishment like the US and Western powers could drive Myanmar closer to China.3 As an escape route, Japan preferred diplomacy to wean away the military than resorting to punitive measures.

Japan’s Past Engagement with the Junta

Even during the decades of military rule, Japan assiduously cultivated the Junta by way of liberal economic aid packages. This time around too, it felt that it can use its economic aid tool to dissuade the military from its actions and return to the democratic path. That strategy might not work this time as the world has toughened its position to punish Myanmar. Japan willy-nilly might have to toe the line chosen by the Western nations and take drastic punitive actions like suspending economic aid. As per available information, Japan is already mulling over such steps as it cannot go against the opinion of the international community. This would mean that Japanese businesses operating in Myanmar could be severely hampered.

Japan can ill afford to have a free hand in dealing with Myanmar on its own volition as the global response is going to be severe. Having tasted democracy for some time after decades of military rule, the people of Myanmar are not going to allow the military a free ride again if the surge in protests assuming violent turn throughout the county is any indication.

Sensing the global mood, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi joined other nations in expressing “grave concern” about the coup and demanded Suu Kyi’s immediate release. Despite this, there is no initial indication that Japan would withdraw aid, though as reported in Asahi Shimbun, Japan is contemplating a suspension of new official development assistance (ODA) projects, without subscribing to the expression “sanctions”.

Besides Japan, China has also been pumping massive aid to this Southeast Asian nation but its financial figures are opaque. In contrast, Japan is Myanmar’s largest economic assistance partner and any halt of aid would be a considerable blow for the country and the military. The military probably is aware of Japan’s such vulnerability and would be oblivious of the hue and cry made about the talk of suspension of Japanese aid. Even if there is any such move from Japan, that would be just cosmetic to appease the international community. This is why Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato disputed the Asahi report with the Foreign Ministry preferring to a wait-and-see approach. Foreign Ministry officials have approached the military through diplomatic channels with a view to convince Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the man behind the coup, to see the merit of a democratic system.

True that among the G-7 countries, Japan has the most robust ties with the military but its persuasive measures have not deterred the military to change course. As said, the military is aware of Japan’s vulnerabilities and unlikely to give undue consideration to Japan’s counsel; so diplomacy is unlikely to be effective. Not to lose heart, the US is still hopeful and is encouraging Japan to use its links as leverage to persuade the junta to return to democracy. Given that the military is unlikely to accede to Japan’s request, the US is most likely to go ahead with economic sanctions on its own.

The US has still hope on Japan to play a positive role in Myanmar. In the past, Japan has engaged the military and Suu Kyi both politically and economically to enhance its presence in the region. In fact, Japan-Myanmar military relations are not recent; it dates back to pre-War days when Japanese army trained Myanmar’s military in its fight against the British for its independence. Opinions, however, differ on the perceptions of the roles of British and Japanese military in Myanmar. While some see Japanese help as assisting the liberation movement, others see both British and Japanese as imperialist powers. Both sides ignore such divergent narratives for the sake of nurturing the present bilateral ties.

Japan’s soft-paddling goes back to the 1960s when the military led by Gen Ne Win overthrew then civilian government in 1962. Japan trusted Gen Win for its own reasons and extended support to the military government. Over the next four decades, Japan continued to engage with the military by economic assistance and investment. It was a win-win relationship for both and continued till 1988 despite that the West was critical of the junta’s violations of human rights when power was passed on to a second military General. The second junta violently suppressed Suu Kyi’s 8888 Uprising4 and refused to recognise the victory to the NLD in the 1990 election. Japan continued to play the role of a mediator between the West and the military junta but did not join wholeheartedly the sanction regime of the West. When the junta finally agreed to hold a referendum to establish a hybrid civilian-military power sharing arrangement, Japan saw a flicker of democracy taking root and expanded its aid program by pouring billions of yen to the hybrid government.

Japan-Myanmar relations started deepening further with then Prime Minister Abe Shinzo meeting with Suu Kyi and senior generals. This was followed by the starting of an academic exchange program which allows young military officers from Myanmar to visit Japan and study at National Defense Academy. Japan has been training Myanmar’s military officers on underwater medicine, aviation meteorology, disaster relief and Japanese language since 2014.

Simultaneously, relationship in the economic realm moved to a higher gear. Japan not only waived past debt but offered new loans to help Myanmar’s economy to grow. A 800 billion yen public-private ODA in 2016 was followed by 189.3 billion yen ODA in fiscal 2019 and was extended further through 2021. At a time when Japan found the rest of the Southeast Asian countries getting saturated for Japanese businesses and had found Myanmar a virgin market allowing the businesses to see potential for economic growth, the coup on 1 February came as a huge blow to Japan’s aspiration to be a close economic partner. The coup was a serious setback to Japan’s decades of investment and its role as an integral part to Myanmar’s development.

The China Factor

Besides adversely impacting the bilateral economic relationship, Japan fears that the coup could lead to the increase of Chinese influence in the region. With differences within members of the ASEAN grouping surfacing, the centrality of the organisation is also under suspect.5 At a time when China’s power is surging in almost all domains, the developments in Myanmar could provide China with a golden opportunity to expand its strategic and military footprint. Not only Japan, China’s increased influence in Myanmar, a country that India too sees as the gateway to further its Act East Policy, is a matter of concern. China could use the opportunity to exploit the disunity in the ASEAN to its own advantage.

No wonder, Japan’s deputy Defense Minister Yasuhide Nakayama warned that the world’s democracies would risk pushing Myanmar into the arms of China if their response to the coup closes channels for communication with the military junta. He cautioned that not responding appropriately and effectively could allow Myanmar “grow further away from politically free democratic nations and join the league of China”.6 Nakayama, therefore, underlined the need for a common strategy with the allies.

While in a face-saving gesture, Japan joined other nations in demanding the release of NLD leader Suu Kyi and restore democracy, Japan is unlikely to suspend any development aid, both ongoing and future committed projects, for fear that such a move could lead the junta to drift further closer towards China. China could seize the opportunity to strengthen its military relationship with Myanmar and expand its footprint, which could then lead Myanmar to grow distant from free nations including the US, Japan and the UK.

Like Japan, India too could find itself in similar dilemma, and both would likely be left with little choice than to continue engaging with the junta while persuading it to see merit in the democratic system. With Chinese Coast Guard vessels frequently entering the contested East China Sea and with the recent new law passed in Beijing, allowing the coast guard to fire on foreign vessels, Japan is openly critical of Beijing’s intentions.7 To check China’s growing influence in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, Japan has focussed on “capacity building support” with the ASEAN grouping as a part of its security strategy in the region. In the wake of the developments in Myanmar, Japan could face some new compelling reasons either to revisit some of its past strategy with a view that its efforts are not in vain and/or to design other means to further deepen defence/security ties with the friendly countries in the region, including that with India. This could entail strategising new approach towards countries like Vietnam, Indonesia and Singapore.

The US Position

The developments in Myanmar pose the first major foreign policy challenge to the Joe Biden administration, barely weeks in office. Taking a hard-line step and as a first immediate step as per its Foreign Assistance Act mandating Washington to halt assistance to any government overthrown by a military, Biden administration proceeded with sanctions against 10 individuals and three entities connected to the military. More may follow in the coming weeks and months. Though Japan does not have any such legislation, it is concerned that the US move and also that of other democracies on sanction measures could only help China. So, the issue is complicated.

Japan is unwilling to follow the US path for fear that China could jump immediately to fill up the void and flex its muscles by way of increasing economic aid. The military junta might not be willing to trust China totally but it cannot reduce its dependence either for its survival; it needs a lifeline to remain in power. The US on its part might not pressurise Japan to toughen its stance against the junta being aware that China’s military might has grown much more than what it was in 2003 and that Japan’s vulnerability has increased since then. The thinking in Kasumigaseki could be soft-pedalling and not unnecessarily get enmeshed in Myanmar’s internal affairs and desist in toeing the US line of sanctions punishment. Had Japan openly sided with the US, Myanmar would not have welcomed Japan’s decision and justified it to have sided with China. Japan is likely to be guided by its past experience of dealing with the military rule for decades and would not unnecessarily antagonise the junta so that its long term interest are not jeopardized and thus protected.

There are reports in Japan’s popular Asahi Shimbun that Japan is mulling over halting new development aid to Myanmar. The Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato however rubbished the report, saying there was no truth in it.8 Japan could come under international pressure and be pressurised to use economic aid as a weapon to convince the military to restore democracy. That is unlikely to happen. Japan is more likely to pursue the route of dialogue and persuasion than hard sanctions and punitive measures against the military junta. How such a stance would impact Japan’s relations with the US and the West remains to be seen.

  1. “Opponents and supporters of Myanmar coup scuffle as more protests planned”, 25 February 2021, The Japan Times, Vhttps://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/25/asia-pacific/myanmar-coup-clashes/
  2. Masaya Kato, “Japan slow to join global chorus denouncing Myanmar coup”, 2 February 2021, https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Myanmar-Coup/Japan-slow-to-join-global-chorus-denouncing-Myanmar-coup
  3. Satoshi Sugiyama and Tomohiro Osaki, “Japan’s ties with Myanmar put to test after military coup”, The Japan Times, 25 February 2021, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/25/national/myanmar-japan-ties/
  4. On the 8th of August 1988, in Yangon, Burma, occurred an event known as the “8888 Uprising”. It became known as one of the largest and most amazing Pro-Democracy Protests in Burma. See, Woman who Dared, https://womenwhodared.weebly.com/8888-uprising.html
  5. Rajaram Panda, “Myanmar: India’s choices are limited”, 17 February 2021, https://www.rediff.com/news/column/rajaram-panda-myanmar-indias-choices-are-limited/20210217.htm; “Indonesia says it held intensive talks with both sides of Myanmar crisis”, 24 February 2021, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/indonesia-intensive-talks-myanmar-military-coup-retno-marsudi-14272378?cid=emarsys-cna_20210225_0000_CNA+Morning+Brief+Mon+to+Sat+%280740
  6. “Japan defense official warns Myanmar coup could increase China’s influence in region”, The Asahi Shimbun, 2 February 2021, http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14157113
  7. Vinod Anand, “Implications of China’s New Coast Guard Law”, 26 February 2021, https://www.vifindia.org/2021/february/26/implications-of-chinas-new-coast-guard-law
  8. “Japan set to halt new development aid to Myanmar: Asahi daily”, 25 February 2021, https://news.yahoo.com/japan-set-halt-development-aid-040547977.html

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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