Japan and Myanmar’s Coup: The Likelihood of a Restrained Response

Japan and Myanmar’s Coup: The Likelihood of a Restrained Response

The news of the Myanmarese military’s coup against the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi at the start of February this year shocked the international community. Many countries have issued statements condemning the coup, with some moving forward in introducing measures such as sanctions. How is Japan likely to react to this crisis and what impact might Japan’s response have on its foreign relations?

The World Responds

Following the news of the coup, much of the international community issued statements signalling their stance on the situation. The European Union issued a statement, agreed by all member states, strongly condemning the coup and calling for the release of detained government officials. The UK published a similar statement, with officials also suggesting that the UK intends to increase pressure on Myanmar’s military leaders by stepping up targeted sanctions and withholding indirect support through multilateral organisations.

The United States issued one of the strongest responses to date; President Biden signed an executive order on 11th February intended to deny the new regime access to approximately $1 billion in assets held in the US. It is quite probable that the Biden administration will introduce further sanctions if Myanmar’s crisis escalates, and the US will almost certainly engage in discussions with its allies in order to coordinate a strong, unified response to the coup.

Japan, as part of the G7, has also expressed its condemnation of the coup and request for the return of democratic governance in Myanmar. In a discussion between Japanese Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on 11th February, Motegi once again outlined Japan’s serious concern for the situation in Myanmar and signalled the Japanese government’s intention to cooperate closely with the US on the issue. However, the likelihood is relatively high that Japan will not respond in the same strong way that the US has done to the crisis owing to its unique relationship with Myanmar and Japan’s strategic foreign policy concerns.

Japan-Myanmar Relations

Japan’s relationship with independent Myanmar stretches back to 1954 when the two countries reached an agreement on World War 2 reparations; this reparations agreement was arguably the start of Japan’s Official Developmental Assistance (ODA), which since 1954 has become a valuable part of Japan’s foreign policy toolbox. In 1987 Japanese aid accounted for 71.5% of all the aid Myanmar received and constituted around 20% of the country’s national budget. Though Japan’s support declined after Myanmar’s military suppressed protests in 1988, Japan stepped up its aid provision after the military government introduced political and economic reforms. For example, after Aung San Suu Kyi was elected in 2012, Japan pledged $2.1 million in grant aid on top of another $2 million which had been announced shortly before the election, as well as $3.7 billion in debt forgiveness.

Another sign of Japan’s nuanced relationship with Myanmar can be seen in the nature of Motegi’s visit to the country in August 2020. On that occasion Motegi met with both then-State Counsellor Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s military. Precisely because of Japan’s long history with Myanmar and its apparent desire to maintain contact with both Myanmar’s military officials and civilian political figures, it is likely that Japan’s response to the coup will not mirror that of the US in terms of tough sanctions against key military personnel. Japanese officials likely feel such a move would undermine their carefully cultivated relationship with Myanmar’s military, in turn hindering their ability to negotiate with the regime and protect their interests in Myanmar.

Investment and the China Issue

The Japanese government is likely to face pressure from businesses which have invested in Myanmar to take a restrained policy in the interest of maintaining the security of Japanese investments in the country. The Japanese government and a consortium of Japanese private companies have a combined 39% stake in Myanmar’s Thilawa Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Moreover, since 2011 the number of Japanese firms operating in Myanmar has also grown significantly, as indicated by membership figures for the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Myanmar; from 53 in 2011, the organization listed 436 member businesses at the end of January this year. The depth of Japan’s economic involvement in Myanmar is thus likely to dissuade the Japanese government from taking measures like sanctions which may pose a risk to these investments.

Though Japan, in cooperation with allies like the US, is likely to penalize the military regime by reducing its aid, it is probable that this will also be relatively moderate in scope. This is because a notable decrease in Japan’s support is likely to create a vacuum which China can fill to increase its influence in the country. Indeed, when Japan reduced the scope of its aid after 1988 China did take advantage of the opportunity.  Increased Chinese influence in Myanmar could impede Japan’s efforts to access key natural resources and bolster domestic firms’ market access to the country, which may have a knock-on effect on Japan’s exports.

A Coordinated Response?

Taking the above into consideration, it’s probable that Japan will withhold a certain amount of aid from Myanmar in response to this crisis, but will not go so far as to introduce sanctions on those responsible for the coup. Nevertheless, it is important that a clear message is sent to those responsible that their actions will not be tolerated. Though Japan alone may not take this step, it’s likely that a combined effort with its allies in Europe and North America will prove more effective. By adopting a ‘good cop, bad cop’ strategy whereby the US and other allies take a harsher stance while Japan adopts a more amicable posture, it’s possible that Myanmar’s military might pay greater attention to Japanese requests in exchange for having Japan negotiate a relaxation in penalties with its allies. 

Whatever course is taken, Japan and its allies will likely need to tread carefully if they hope to prevent Myanmar sliding further into the Chinese sphere of influence while encouraging a return to democracy in Myanmar.

Categories: Politics, Southeast Asia

About Author

Samuel Arnold-Parra

Samuel graduated from LSE in 2020 with a degree in International Relations and History. Since graduating, he has been building up experience in research and analysis. Currently, he is conducting voluntary research on Japanese national and sub-national responses to COVID-19. He is eager to use his skills in Spanish and Japanese to contribute valuable insights focusing on Japan and Latin America.