Framing ASEAN's Cooperation with India and China over Myanmar Post-coup: A Strategic Resourcing Framework.

AuthorAdhikari, Monalisa

In April 2021, ASEAN launched the Five-Point Consensus (5PC) as its policy framework to address the unprecedented humanitarian and human rights crisis following the military takeover in Myanmar two months earlier. The military-led State Administration Council (SAC) has engaged in widespread repression of multiple opposition actors, including the National Unity Government (NUG)--formed by democratically elected candidates of the National League for Democracy (NLD) who challenged the military's claim to power--the various Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) that have fought decades-long insurgencies across the borderlands, and the People's Defence Forces (PDFs)--mostly armed civilians in urban areas--that emerged post-coup. (1) While the 5PC is distinct from the ambiguous engagement of regional states such as India and China, as well as from the sanctions-centric response of Western states, the ASEAN-led approach has made limited progress in getting the junta to abide by any of the terms of the agreement. (2) The post-coup deadlock in Myanmar has underscored the limits of the 5PC and raised questions over ASEAN's credibility, leading to calls for ASEAN to scrap the policy. (3)

With an impasse in delivering on the 5PC, and the increased acknowledgement that ASEAN alone cannot force the junta to reverse the effects of the coup, there have been calls for ASEAN to engage in greater cooperation with United States and the European Union (EU). (4) This article departs from such a focus on Western states and looks to how and why ASEAN could cooperate with India and China to address the Myanmar crisis. It argues that ASEAN can cooperate with both states regarding Myanmar, not by bringing them into a trilateral framework but rather by using their comparative strengths (separately) across thematic domains critical for the implementation of the 5PC. That includes utilizing Indian and Chinese borderlands geography/space to deliver humanitarian aid, and using their economic, political and normative leverage over different political constituencies in Myanmar to call for an immediate end to the violence and for dialogue as a means for a long-term solution. Conceptualized as "strategic resourcing" (SR), this article not only sets out the motivations of these actors--India, China and ASEAN--to cooperate, it also highlights the limitations of any cooperation. A key caveat to note, however, is that the framework of SR is a proposition of a policy option foregrounded on three key assumptions: (1) that ASEAN adopts a unified position; (2) that India and China want to work with ASEAN; and (3) that the balance of power within Myanmar continues to be fragmented.

The following section situates the context of the Myanmar crisis and ASEAN's engagement in it, followed by an assessment of the SR framework. The next section evaluates ASEAN's cooperation with India and China in Myanmar based on considerations of capacity, credibility, cost and complexity. Thereafter, India and China's motivations for engagement with ASEAN are examined, followed by a discussion on limitations, leading to the conclusion.

The Myanmar Crisis and ASEAN's Five-Point Consensus

The five points in ASEAN's 5PC are an "immediate end to violence"; "holding dialogue among all parties"; the "appointment of a special envoy"; "allowing humanitarian assistance by ASEAN"; and "allowing an ASEAN special envoy to visit" Myanmar to meet with all parties. (5) To review the implementation of the 5PC, the ASEAN Leaders' Meeting has delegated the task to the ASEAN Coordinating Council and the ASEAN Foreign Ministers. (6) Unpacking the elements of the agreement, ASEAN Foreign Ministers' meetings in October and November 2022 noted that the 5PC had hit a roadblock. Violence and repression by the Myanmar military had increased. With the NUG's call for a "people's defensive war" in September 2021, in which it appealed to EAOs and PDFs to target military assets in their respective areas, violence has become mainstreamed as a strategic tool. (7) Similarly, despite ASEAN's pitch for dialogue, the NUG and other anti-military opposition groups have explicitly declined to engage in talks with the military. (8) At the same time, while ASEAN has appointed two special envoys to Myanmar, the military-led SAC regime has not complied with the recommendations made by these envoys and has not permitted them to meet with the opposition leaders. (9) Humanitarian assistance has been focused on COVID-19 relief. Multiple problems persist, however, including the SAC restricting humanitarian access in some parts of the country and concerns that ASEAN's use of the SAC's administrative channels to deliver aid inadvertently legitimizes the junta, as well as the scale of the aid not matching up to the needs on the ground. (10) In this context, some commentators see the 5PC as "doing more harm than good by perpetuating the illusion that a viable political process exists, which confers a degree of legitimacy on the junta", (11) and even "buying time for the military". (12)

The Myanmar crisis and the pressure it has brought upon ASEAN have historic antecedents. Since the country achieved independence in 1948, Myanmar has witnessed multiple armed conflicts waged by different EAOs on claims of the exclusion of ethnic communities by the Bamar majority, compounded by decades of authoritarian rule. (13) The stifling of democratic movements in the late 1980s led to widespread international condemnation and Western sanctions through the 1990s. Against this background, Myanmar joined ASEAN in 1997. In contrast to Western states, ASEAN's "constructive engagement" meant it continued to engage military-led governments, underpinned by the logic that promoting trade, diplomatic and economic ties with the regime would lead to socioeconomic progress and eventually political liberalization. (14)

However, Myanmar's internal record on the repression of democratic elements in society, and its repeated failure to abide by ASEAN's call to engage with all political groups and work towards democratic transition, created deep frustrations within the regional bloc. (15) The Myanmar issue has divided ASEAN members (16) and tested the fundamental tenets of the ASEAN Way, which is rooted in the principle of non-interference, consensual decision-making and constructive engagement. (17) Equally, ASEAN's commitment to the principle of non-intervention in the affairs of its members has been tested as it has had to weigh in on Myanmar's affairs because of their implications for regional security. (18)

In the early 2010s, the military government of General Thein Sein engaged in a policy of opening-up through the introduction of nominal democratic reforms, including more space for civil society, registration of political parties, the release of political prisoners and a nationwide peace process. (19) For the latter, various EAOs were invited to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), which committed the government to dialogue with the EAOs on their key demands, such as federalism and security sector reform. (20) Despite democratic progress--witnessed by the NLD's victory at the 2015 general election--the peace process did not take off as many of the EAOs, notably the Kachin Independence Army, did not sign up to the NCA. The NLD's record of promoting inclusion when in government had been called into question. (21) Instead, the triggers of the 2021 coup are considered to have been the NLD raising the issue of constitutional amendments to reduce the role of the military in politics and its electoral gains in the 2020 elections. (22)

The humanitarian catastrophe and the international condemnation that followed the coup have again placed pressure on ASEAN to act on Myanmar. The regional bloc's engagement this time, however, faces competing claims of legitimacy from the SAC and the NUG. It is further complicated by unprecedented levels of fragmentation of the country with the NUG, multiple EAOs and PDFs (23) governing different areas and the varying relations (24) between these groups. (25)

Situating "Strategic Resourcing" as a Framework--ASEAN beyond Hedging

In the context of a complex political situation in Myanmar and the ongoing deadlock in implementing the 5PC, ASEAN needs to think beyond its current approach. While commentators have called for the scrapping of the 5PC, others have argued that it is the lowest common denominator of what is acceptable among ASEAN states and one which they are unlikely to revise. (26) Accepting the centrality of the 5PC, ASEAN can thus rethink how to extend partnerships to deliver on its objectives rather than devising a new strategy. Indonesia's chairmanship of ASEAN in 2023 and its formation of the ASEAN Chair's Office of Special Envoy to Myanmar provide impetus for fresh thinking on international partnerships. (27) The prospect of this is strengthened by India and China having explicitly stated their support for the ASEAN-led 5PC. (28)

A partnership with India and China--neighbouring states that could bring untapped leverage, influence and capacity to the 5PC process--at a time when Western states are preoccupied with the Russia-Ukraine conflict, could be a potential strategy. This article proposes the concept of SR as a way to understand how cooperative partnerships with India and China could lead to some progress on the 5PC. SR, as a policy framework, enables ASEAN to harness the comparative strengths of India and China by utilizing two domains: their geography/space to deliver humanitarian aid; and their economic, political and normative leverage over different political constituencies to call for an immediate end to the violence and foster dialogue for a long-term solution. As laid out in Table 1, SR also allows for the delivery of the short-term goals of violence reduction, humanitarian response and dialogue as well as the long-term objectives of inclusive democracy and peace through a...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT