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With the United States announcing plans to reimpose sanctions on Myanmar over a coup earlier this month, Japan remains cautious about invoking punitive measures against the Southeast Asian country, fearing any such moves may affect Japanese businesses operating there and drive the military closer to China.

While the European Union is also considering slapping sanctions on Myanmar, Japan has been stepping up efforts to persuade Myanmar's armed forces, which seized power in the Feb. 1 coup, to free civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other detainees and return to democracy.

Anti-military protests have been growing in Myanmar, and if the United States and the European Union go ahead with sanctions and urge Japan to follow suit, that would put Tokyo, a key U.S. ally, in a difficult position, according to experts.

Japan has long maintained ties with Myanmar, making it the only country among the Group of Seven nations to have connections with both the military, known as the Tatmadaw, and Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy.

In a sign of Japan's close ties with both sides, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi met with both Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing, the military chief who led the coup, when he visited Myanmar last August.

Following a call with his U.S. counterpart, Motegi said Thursday that Japan and the United States "strongly condemn" Myanmar's escalation of police force against those protesting last week's military coup and demand that local authorities stop the violence against civilians.

During the call between Motegi and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the two also shared their concerns over China's new coast guard law, which Tokyo fears will raise tensions around the Japan-administered, China-claimed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

Women wearing ball gowns protest against the military coup and demand the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon on Wednesday. | KYAW SOE THET / VIA REUTERS
Women wearing ball gowns protest against the military coup and demand the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon on Wednesday. | KYAW SOE THET / VIA REUTERS

According to the Foreign Ministry, Motegi and Blinken expressed grave concern over the situation in Myanmar and agreed to strongly urge the Myanmar military to release civilian leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, who have been detained since the Feb. 1 coup.

"We will continue to closely cooperate" on the issue, the ministry said in a news release.

But some experts believe U.S. sanctions will serve to benefit China, including in the area of Indo-Pacific security.

"If the United States and other countries impose sanctions on Myanmar, they will not only increase the clout of China, a Myanmar neighbor, but could also result in the loss of a key security base in the Indo-Pacific region," said Yohei Sasakawa, chairman of the Nippon Foundation in Tokyo.

Sasakawa headed a Japanese monitoring group for the November election in Myanmar, which gave the NLD an overwhelming 396 of 476 seats in parliament — a result that is believed to have driven the Tatmadaw to overthrow Suu Kyi's elected government.

"If the United States goes for economic sanctions, Japan as its ally will be in a difficult position," he wrote on a blog post dated Feb. 2.

Kavi Chongkittavorn, a Bangkok-based regional affairs expert, said Japan should send a "strong message" to Myanmar to release Suu Kyi, and that Tokyo should urge Washington to pursue "constructive engagement" with the military without putting back in place significant sanctions it imposed on Myanmar during decades of dictatorship.

"The United States and Japan have to coordinate their approaches — a good cop and a bad cop approach," said Kavi, a senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, in an email.

Protesters hold up placards demanding the release of detained Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a demonstration against the Feb. 1 military coup in Yangon on Wednesday. | AFP-JIJI
Protesters hold up placards demanding the release of detained Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a demonstration against the Feb. 1 military coup in Yangon on Wednesday. | AFP-JIJI

Other experts have also warned against hastily deciding on sanctions against Myanmar, a country that had been promoting democratic reforms since the first civilian government was voted in in 2015.

"Targeted sanctions, already in place, can continue against the generals, and broaden to others involved in the state of emergency. Signals must warn against them taking more oppressive steps," said Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

Min Aung Hlaing and several other generals were already subject to U.S. sanctions for their involvement in the crackdowns on the Rohingya Muslim minority.

"In contrast, if they show signs of relenting, then dialogue should be fostered. But broad sanctions, as previously used by the West, should be avoided," Tay said in an email. "They harm ordinary citizens. They also will push the military to rely more on China."

China has been strengthening ties with Myanmar by helping with construction projects such as pipelines and ports under the Belt and Road initiative, a massive cross-border infrastructure plan critics say is intended to draw countries deeper into Beijing's economic orbit.

Beijing has declined to condemn the generals, insisting that other countries should not interfere in Myanmar's internal affairs. China's official Xinhua News Agency referred to the coup as a "major cabinet reshuffle."

Besides continuing dialogue and engagement, some scholars were more in favor of Japan clearly expressing its views about the Tatmadaw's takeover.

"Japan and other countries provided support to hold what is regarded as a fair election," said Mie Oba, a professor of international relations at Kanagawa University, referring to the November election.

"But if Myanmar's military calls it rigged, Japan must protest it," Oba said in an interview. "I think the Japanese government should halt ongoing aid projects … do something close to a sanction."

According to the Foreign Ministry, Japan extended massive official development assistance totaling about ¥190 billion in fiscal 2019, by far the largest among the 30-member Development Assistance Committee of the OECD.

Since Japan does not currently have a law that allows the government to impose sanctions on individuals on the basis of human rights violations, a more feasible option for Tokyo is to halt or reduce its economic assistance to Myanmar.

In the past, Japan suspended new projects in Myanmar on three occasions in connection with the house arrest of Suu Kyi but resumed full-fledged economic assistance from April 2012 following the country's shift to civil rule in 2011.

Private investments have poured into Myanmar in line with its democratic reform. As of January this year, 436 Japanese companies were operating in the country, up from 53 in March 2012, according to the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Myanmar.

"Japanese businesses have invested into the Thilawa Special Economic Zone near Yangon and elsewhere so they would certainly call for a stable relationship with Myanmar, even under the military rule, and I can understand their logic and feeling," Oba said.

"But the Japanese government must think about whether that is appropriate for itself," she said.

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