Quad Can Flex Its Geopolitical Muscles In Myanmar – OpEd


By Dr. Azeem Ibrahim*

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as the Quad, is a strategic forum between the US, Japan, Australia and India that was initiated in 2007 in response to the perceived threat to America’s allies in the Indo-Pacific from the rising might of China.

Although China remains the main focus of the group, the four countries share a much broader range of interests in the region, and some of the many problems they face will be more immediately manageable — above all, the crisis in Myanmar.

Civil strife in Myanmar between the military government, which seized power in a coup in February, and the pro-democracy majority of the civilian population poses huge risks to the stability of the region as a whole. So much so that even though the pro-democracy side is seen as supported by the West, even Beijing is not automatically supporting the military government in response.

China sees the military administration as unsustainable in the long term and therefore, a problem for regional stability and its own Belt and Road investments in the country. But just to be on the safe side, it is avoiding taking sides overtly. The only big player actively and enthusiastically supporting the military is Moscow, both so it can continue to sell weapons to the junta, and as a spoiler and distraction to everyone else.

Overall, however, the consensus among international observers is that this is a conflict that the junta cannot win but can only prolong. At least as things stand, it appears that so long as the military leaders seek to maintain control over the formal government, the overwhelming majority of the populace will try to resist their authority.

Governance without consent in such a way is technically possible, but unavoidably and unsustainably expensive. If the population remains this resistant, the military will eventually exhaust all its available resources trying to impose itself on the country. But until one side gives in, Myanmar will remain a battlefield. Ordinary people will suffer, the economy will break down, and it will be an ever-present possibility that many will be forced to flee to other countries.

All members of the Quad have an interest in stability in the region, not only for traditional geopolitical reasons, but also due to varying degrees of concern over human rights and commercial opportunities.

Thus, India and to a lesser extent Australia want to avoid another refugee wave flowing out of Myanmar, with all the political knock-on effects that will have for neighboring countries — to say nothing of the public health implications against the background of the pandemic, with Myanmar one of the worst-affected countries in the world precisely because of the conflict.

Australia will be keen on cooperation on natural resources exploitation, a sector in which Canberra is an international powerhouse. And the US and Japan are certain to be keen purchasers of these resources, especially the minerals. Furthermore, the US remains morally implicated in Myanmar, having been the principal international promoter of the country’s abortive transition to democracy after 2008.

For all these reasons, the four countries of the Quad need a quick resolution of the conflict in favor of the pro-democracy civilian side. There is a huge opportunity here, because this can be achieved without direct confrontation with China — indeed, Beijing could be implicitly relied on for tacit support, certainly so long as the infrastructure it has built and wants to continue to build in Myanmar is protected.

These major players can speed up resolution of this conflict by giving full-throated support to the pro-democracy government, with full diplomatic recognition, humanitarian support for civilian areas affected by military crackdowns, and even logistics and material support for the resistance, if it comes to that.

However, clarity of vision, political will and strategic coordination, including with Beijing, are still required. If this goal is pursued properly, there is no reason the effort should not be a resounding success, both for the regional interests of the Quad powers and, most importantly, for the people of Myanmar.

  • Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is the director of special initiatives at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington DC and author of ‘The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide’ (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim

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