- The Washington Times
Tuesday, February 2, 2021

A military coup in Myanmar and major street demonstrations against Russian strongman Vladimir Putin are presenting an early, double-pronged test of President Biden’s vow to put promoting democracy and human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy.

American criticism of Mr. Putin’s handling of the protests has strained already sour U.S.-Russia relations, and the Myanmar situation risks igniting fresh great-power tensions with China. But the Biden administration stood its ground Tuesday by formally declaring the Myanmar military takeover as a coup and slamming the Kremlin’s persecution of one of Mr. Putin’s best-known critics.

“Russia has international obligations to respect equality before the law and the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said after a Moscow court issued a nearly three-year prison sentence to opposition leader Alexei Navalny, whose arrest by Russian authorities on questionable grounds sparked the anti-Putin protests last month.

Mr. Blinken condemned the Navalny detention, as well as the recent arrests of scores of demonstrators.

“We reiterate our call for the Russian government to immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Navalny, as well as the hundreds of other Russian citizens wrongfully detained in recent weeks for exercising their rights,” the secretary of state said in a statement, adding that the Biden administration plans to “coordinate closely with our allies and partners to hold Russia accountable.”

On the campaign trail last year, Mr. Biden was sharply critical of former President Trump for pursuing personal relationships with autocratic foreign leaders such as Mr. Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, arguing Mr. Trump’s transactional approach undercut traditional American values.

Mr. Biden vowed to “revitalize” America’s “national commitment to advancing human rights and democracy around the world.” He promised repeatedly as a candidate to host a global summit of the world’s democracies during his first year in office.

Many conservatives remain skeptical.

National security and foreign affairs expert James Carafano at the Heritage Foundation said the president “seemed determined to elevate partisan politics over good policy” during his first week in office. In an article published by The National Interest on Monday, Mr. Carafano cited such moves as the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline, rejoining the Paris climate agreement and extending unchanged the New START arms control treaty with Mr. Putin’s Russia.

But several Republican lawmakers joined the Biden administration Tuesday in roundly condemning the Navalny prosecution and the Myanmar coup.

“The decision of the Moscow court today to re-impose a jail term on Alexei Navalny for a politically motivated conviction once again exposes the corruption of the country’s judicial system,” said Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, the outgoing Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“Russia’s abhorrent behavior towards its citizens over the past two weeks demonstrates how terrified Vladimir Putin is of the Russian people,” said Mr. Risch in a statement.

Whether Republicans will be willing to support whatever actions the Biden White House takes in response to the developments in Russia is another matter.

Increasing the pressure

There are signs the administration will try to seize on the developments as a moral justification to increase U.S. pressure on European allies — specifically Germany — to abandon their support for Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which aims to pump Russian natural gas directly into Western Europe.

On Myanmar, too, support for the country’s now-deposed civilian elected leaders could come at a geopolitical cost. China, the Southeast Asian country’s biggest trading partner, issued a far more neutral statement on the military takeover, insisting it was an internal affair for Myanmar to sort out.

By contrast, the State Department on Tuesday declared that the military takeover of Myanmar’s government a day earlier was in fact a “coup d’etat” — a finding that triggers federal laws requiring a halt of nearly all American economic aid.

U.S. officials said they are reviewing which funds will be cut and said humanitarian aid would not be affected for now. State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday that U.S. bilateral aid to Myanmar in fiscal 2020 totaled $135 million, most of it for Rohingya Muslim refugees and to civil society groups — not the military.

“We’re going to work expeditiously to determine the implications for Burma’s military leaders for their actions here,” Mr. Price said. “But there is a small sliver of that foreign assistance that would actually be implicated.”

Tuesday’s declaration, which built on Mr. Biden’s threat a day earlier to level sanctions against Myanmar, is likely to anger China’s communist leadership. Beijing recently was accused by Washington of carrying genocide against its own minority Muslim population and has spent the past two days trying to downplay the coup in Myanmar.

Beijing has significant oil and gas interests in Myanmar, whose geographic location encompasses a potentially strategic land bridge between China and the Indian Ocean. The military in Myanmar took control Monday after what had been a roughly decade-long experiment with democratic reforms, giving China a potentially major new opening in the country, where the West has exerted great effort to promote democracy to blunt Beijing’s influence.

“This is a setback for Myanmar and for democratic governance across Asia,” Daniel R. Russel, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “It’s part of an unfortunate slide toward authoritarianism and it’s quite worrying. It sets an appalling example for other countries.”

Mr. Russel, who is presently vice president for International Security and Diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute, added that the Myanmar developments represent “certainly an early crisis for the Biden administration, and it’s really crystalized the contrast between its support for democracy and the Chinese support for authoritarianism.”

China’s state-controlled Xinhua news agency has described the coup in Myanmar as a “major cabinet reshuffle.” The Communist party’s Global Times newspaper ran an article Tuesday citing “experts” describing it as an “adjustment to the country’s dysfunctional power structure” and warning that officials in Myanmar “should be wary of possible external interference.”

Chinese protests, analysts say, reflect fears the Biden administration plans to target Beijing’s own record on human rights and civil liberties that was a central part of the Trump administration’s approach as well.

While the policy was largely centered on trade disputes and tariffs, it also featured a dramatic uptick in U.S. government declarations of outrage over China’s human rights record — particularly with regard to Beijing’s treatment of ethnic Uighur Muslims in the country’s northwest and of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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