The Biden administration declared the military action in Myanmar, formerly Burma, to be a coup. Immediately this triggers a halt to foreign aid to the southeast Asian nation. In the medium term the US has the usual range of options for responding to this. The Security Studies Group strongly advises that the military options be set aside. Myanmar is perfectly positioned to be an unwinnable conflict similar to the Vietnam war, one that would drain American blood and treasure with no possibility of a positive outcome.
A quick look at the map will show several reasons for avoiding an American military action.
- Myanmar, like Vietnam, directly borders the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Any insurgency against a US-backed government in Myanmar would thus have the potential to obtain shelter from the PRC. As the PRC is a nuclear power, this ‘backfield’ would be untouchable by American military force. Thus, the insurgency would have an immediately available, untouchable shelter from which to launch attacks.
- Note the road structure in Myanmar versus that in neighboring China. American logistics would have to be delivered by air, or else by the Yangon seaport. From there, supplies would need to be trucked along the one main supply route (MSR) to the capital.
- Insurgents operating from Chinese territory could be resupplied much more cheaply, as supplies would neither need to be shipped halfway around the world, nor would they need to be distributed along a single MSR. If the PRC backed an insurgency, it would be cheap for them but very expensive for the United States. While contesting PRC expansion is a worthy goal, they are close enough to parity with the United States that we must avoid a leveraged conflict like this.
Would the PRC back an insurgency? There is reason to think so. For one thing, they already resent American presence in what they see as their part of the world. America is deployed in Afghanistan to their west; South Korea, to their northeast; Japan; often in the Philippines; Singapore; and the US has a relationship with Taiwan that the PRC finds frustrating. Just last month, the PRC staged a test attack run on an American carrier group operating near Taiwan.
In addition to which, the PRC has reasons to align with the military in Myanmar. The PRC’s own suppression of democracy advocates in Hong Kong shows that anti-democratic, pro-authoritarian movement in Southeast Asia is in line with their model for the region. The Chinese can easily do business with any regime in Myanmar that is not opposed to them for the same reason they could cheaply support an insurgency. They have the advantages of proximity and, on their side of the border, developed roads. The more pressure such a regime is under from elsewhere, the more attractive China’s offer of support will appear.
Indeed, if anything, those facts argue against any sort of response beyond the diplomatic. They should definitely rule out a military response. Pressure to free embattled Nobel Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi — currently not in high favor internationally because of her support of the genocide against the Islamic minority in western Myanmar — and a hard freeze of foreign aid are as far as we can wisely go. We should address our diplomacy as much to resolving the coup as to ending the genocide, which is practically a bigger problem than which authoritarian rules in Myanmar. Not every problem can be solved, and not every knot can be untied. This one can’t even be cut.