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Strategic Anxiety and Diplomatic Caution: Australia’s Response to the Myanmar Coup

Jeremy Costa | Australian Foreign Policy Fellow

Australia’s response to the military coup in Myanmar can be characterised as a mix of diplomatic restraint and rhetorical caution. It has taken a decidedly more moderate tone than its traditional allies in the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and the European Union.

Canberra waited over a month to announce that it had formally suspended defence ties with the military junta, known as the Tatmadaw, and its statements of condemnations have been carefully curated. The government has enforced some minimalist sanctions on individuals but has chosen not to target army chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the leader of the Tatmadaw and orchestrator of the coup.

Australia’s response reflects a strategic anxiety that has come to define many of the recent foreign policy decisions that it has made in a world it views as “poorer, more dangerous and more disorderly". But as domestic pressure mounts over the treatment of Australian citizens in Myanmar, it is imperative that Canberra does all it can to protect Myanmar citizens from a cycle of perpetual suffering.

Strategic Anxiety

Australia’s careful diplomacy has been driven by considerations of the strategic consequences of alienating Myanmar’s military powers. Namely, Canberra is concerned that too harsh a response could push the Tatmadaw further into the arms of Beijing. China has significantly downplayed the coup, with state-affiliated media referring to it as a “cabinet reshuffle”. Reports have also emerged of secret flights running between Kunming in China and Myanmar’s largest city Yangon, prompting concerns that Beijing is supporting the Tatmadaw to restrict access to information and the internet. Some experts have also claimed that Beijing might be supplying the military with weapons.

While Myanmar may not sit high on Australia’s list of priority relationships, it is crucial to China as a strategic buffer. It is likely that Chinese leaders are viewing the unrest with increasing concern, particularly if growing disputes between civilians and the military cause a spill-over of violence, refugees and the risk of COVID-19 contamination into its borders. Beijing has a stake in quelling civil unrest and it is likely to use this as the domestic impetus to become more involved in the country, even if it has to do so covertly. The Australian Government would certainly view the increased presence of China in the Southeast Asian country with significant unease.

Domestic Imperatives

Further complicating Australia’s ability to respond to the coup with authority is the presence of Australian citizens in Myanmar. Canberra is particularly concerned for the wellbeing of Sean Turnell, an Australian citizen and Senior Advisor to the country’s former civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Turnell was detained by the military junta days after Aung San Suu Kyi was overthrown in the coup. His arrest, which was reportedly the first of a foreign citizen, sparked a statement by Foreign Minister Marise Payne, who noted that she was “deeply concerned” by reports of the arrest of Australian citizens inside Myanmar.

Australia is consequently walking a diplomatic tightrope to avoid damaging a relationship which it knows will need to endure to some extent for the foreseeable future. The complete breakdown of the relationship would almost certainly restrict Australia’s ability to provide any meaningful consular assistance to citizens trapped in the country.

A Path Forward

The international community has reacted with varying degrees of authority to the coup. But even among the most vocal members, there is a clear sense that any response is likely to be limited. The US under President Joe Biden has made strong statements of condemnation, but there is very little meaningful action that the US and others can and are willing to take, particularly as domestic pressures stack up at home.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s recent comments that there is "no clear path” toward addressing the crisis is reflective of an atmosphere of helplessness that has permeated rhetoric at the highest levels. Federal MP and former DFAT diplomat Dave Sharma’s comments that it was “too soon to be talking about sanctions…until we have heard the views of ASEAN and other regional players” is a glimpse into Canberra’s reluctance and a likely foreshadowing of an Australian response that asserts ASEAN authority.

Even so, sanctions are unlikely to be an effective tool. The Tatmadaw has experienced years of economic pressures and are unlikely to be deterred by economic restrictions. Nations also need to be careful that sanctions do not unintentionally harm Myanmar citizens. Even before the pandemic, Myanmar was one of the poorest countries in Asia with more than half of the country’s children living in either poverty or near poverty.

Despite these challenges, Canberra can still play an important role internationally and can support Myanmar citizens residing in Australia. Calls for the Australian Government to grant amnesty to Myanmar citizens should be answered and present a seemingly un-controversial decision that would have a real impact.

The coup may have some strategic consequences for Australia, but it is the Myanmar people who are suffering. Australia has a responsibility as a leader in the region to do all it can to support and protect the Myanmar citizens who have experienced years of hardship and anguish.

Jeremy Costa is the Foreign Affairs Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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