WASHINGTON — President Biden announced on Wednesday that he was imposing sanctions that would prevent the generals who engineered a coup in Myanmar from gaining access to $1 billion in funds their government keeps in the United States, and said he would announce additional actions against the military leaders and their families.
It was the first concrete step the U.S. government has taken since Mr. Biden demanded that the generals restore democracy and release Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the nation’s civilian leader.
Noting that protests were growing, Mr. Biden warned that “violence against those asserting their democratic rights is unacceptable” and that “the world is watching.” The president said he had consulted with Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, and a range of nations across Southeast Asia.
But Mr. Biden’s options are limited.
Myanmar has relatively little trade with the United States, and the key partner Mr. Biden needs to join in the sanctions is China — which is building much of the isolated country’s infrastructure, including a 5G telecommunications network. So far, the Chinese have not publicly condemned the coup or announced their own sanctions. If China acted, it would most likely not do so with public announcements.
Administration officials have acknowledged that they have to organize the pressure campaign on Myanmar in a way that will not drive the generals further into China’s embrace.
Mr. Biden did not address that trade-off, other than to say that “we’ll continue to work with our international partners to urge other nations to join us in these efforts.”
Mr. Biden has used his response to the events in Myanmar to accentuate the contrast between his administration and President Donald J. Trump’s. Mr. Trump used sanctions frequently, but usually did not invest much time trying to get allies to join in. He rarely spoke about human rights violations, except when the perpetrator was Iran or, in his last year in office, China.
Myanmar, though, was a conspicuous exception. In July 2019, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on some of the same military commanders for their roles in the atrocities carried out against Rohingya Muslims. They included Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the army chief who took control on Jan. 31 after the party supporting the military lost a critical election.
The Trump administration also penalized three of his highest-ranking generals and barred their immediate family members from entering the United States. Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state at the time, declared that “the United States is the first government to publicly take action with respect to the most senior leadership of the Burmese military.”
The problem is made more complex by the fact that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate from her days as a dissident, defended the military’s actions against the Rohingya ethnic minority and denied that the atrocities, including murder, rape and arson, amounted to genocide. The military forced more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee across the border into Bangladesh, where they live in squalid refugee camps.
For Mr. Biden, the response to the Myanmar coup is a test of his declaration that American foreign policy will emphasize American values, from democratization to human rights. The president’s emphasis on the need to call out, and punish, those who undermine free elections has a rarely spoken subtext — his own effort to show that the United States overcame Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
But there is another test underway: whether Mr. Biden can use the events in Myanmar as an early test of his ability to work with China while also competing with Beijing for economic and military power in the Pacific.
Kishore Mahbubani, a longtime Singaporean diplomat, wrote in The South Morning China Post that the coup “could quietly jump-start discreet geopolitical cooperation between Beijing and the new Biden administration,” because China would not want to see Southeast Asian nations divided on whether to side with the military or with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi.
An isolated Myanmar and a rift in the region would create openings for other powers to divide nations against Beijing, he argued.
“Fortunately, trade-offs among great powers are an old game,” he wrote, “although to be honest, they are best done under the table with little public scrutiny.”