Myanmar Coup Presents Foreign Policy Challenge To Biden Administration

A military coup toppled the democratically elected government of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, on Monday, creating the first Pacific Rim-based foreign policy and economic policy challenge for the Biden administration.

What Happened: Myanmar's army imposed a year-long state of emergency, with governing power given to Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the military's 64-year-old commander-in-chief, who was approaching a mandatory retirement age.

In announcing the coup, the military claimed Myanmar's democratically elected government failed to respond to allegations of fraud in a November election in which the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) Party of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi won a majority of seats in parliament.

Myanmar returned to democracy in 2011 following four decades of military rule. But its government had been under intense criticism over the past several years for the military's campaign against the nation's Rohingya minority, which resulted in approximately 700,000 members of this Muslim ethnic group fleeing the country during a campaign that human rights groups equated to ethnic cleansing and genocide.

The White House and the State Department quickly condemned the coup. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki promised the U.S. "will take action against those responsible" if the coup is not reversed, while Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for the release of government officials and urged the military junta to "respect the will of the people of Burma as expressed in democratic elections on Nov. 8."

Why It's Important: From a financial aspect, the coup further complicates an already complex relationship between the U.S. and Myanmar.

In 2019, the U.S. Treasury Department responded to the humanitarian crisis involving the Rohingya by freezing Min Aung Hliang's U.S.-based assets; banning companies from doing business with him; and banning him from travel to the U.S.

According to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Myanmar is the nation's 94th largest goods trading partner, with $1.2 billion in total goods trade during 2019.

U.S. goods exported to Myanmar totaled $347 million during 2019, a 33.1% year-over-year increase, while goods imports totaled $821 million, up 65.7% year-over-year. The U.S. had a $474-million goods trade deficit with Myanmar for 2019.

The top export categories were food waste and animal feed ($103 million), plastics ($54 million), miscellaneous grain, seeds and fruit ($32 million), vehicles ($25 million), and cereals (wheat) ($22 million).

The top import categories from Myanmar were leather products ($229 million), woven apparel ($161 million), knit apparel ($115 million), footwear ($73 million), and precious metal and stone (jewelry) ($46 million).

The U.S.-Myanmar trade relationship is a fraction of the China-Myanmar trade relationship, which accounts for more than one-third of Myanmar's total trade volume.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Min Aung Hlaing last month in Beijing and referred to the two nations as "brothers."

China has not condemned the coup, with Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin saying that "China is a friendly neighbor of Myanmar, and we hope all parties in Myanmar can properly handle differences under the constitutional and legal framework and safeguard political and social stability."

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