BEIJING - Fears are mounting that Myanmar's political disruption may provide a window of opportunity for China to get closer to the Southeast Asian country, making security ties among democratic forces fragile.
Should the United States take a hardline posture against Myanmar's military that seized power on Monday, it would prompt the Association of Southeast Asian Nations member to strengthen relations with the communist power.
China's growing proximity to Myanmar could also undermine the "free and open Indo-Pacific" concept initiated by the United States and Japan, apparently designed to promote security cooperation of democratic countries to counter Beijing's rising regional influence.
The international community "should work as one to protect Myanmar's budding democracy," but an "excessive response" to the military's coup should be avoided, a diplomatic source said.
"If Myanmar takes sides with China, the free and open Indo-Pacific vision may be distorted," the source said, adding, "The United States and Japan should deal with the current problem in a very careful manner."
On Monday, Myanmar's military staged a coup and detained the nation's elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Later in the day, new U.S. President Joe Biden, who took office on Jan. 20, warned of re-imposing sanctions on Myanmar, calling the development a "direct assault" on the county's transition to democracy.
Washington removed sanctions on Myanmar over the past decade based on progress toward democracy, but the reversal will "necessitate an immediate review of our sanction laws and authorities," Biden said in a statement.
In contrast, China has refrained from condemning Myanmar's latest military coup and calling for the release of Suu Kyi, only expressing hope that differences in the Southeast Asian country will be properly managed "under the constitutional and legal framework."
The leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping, which has traditionally tried to deepen ties with Myanmar in the economic and security fields, is believed to be gauging how the neighboring nation's situation will unfold and be addressed globally.
"China is a friendly neighbor of Myanmar," Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters on Tuesday.
"Any action by the international community should contribute to Myanmar's political and social stability," Wang said, urging other major powers not to resume sanctions on the Southeast Asian country.
Myanmar is located right on the path of China's strategic plan to get direct access to the Indian Ocean as part of Beijing's "Belt and Road" project for the development of infrastructure and trade across Asia, Europe and Africa.
In January 2020, Xi visited Myanmar and agreed with Suu Kyi that the two nations will boost cooperation under the initiative connecting countries across the globe, which China touts as a modern Silk Road economic zone.
Last month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a trip to Myanmar to hold talks with Suu Kyi.
China has also put an emphasis on economic and security relations with Myanmar, as it has imported natural resources such as gas and crude oil through pipes from the neighbor.
Myanmar, meanwhile, had previously forged ties with China during the era of military rule to prevent bilateral military conflict.
Since transitioning to civilian rule in 2011, Myanmar enhanced its relations with Western nations like the United States under a foreign policy that seeks to strike a balance between the two sides.
Even under Suu Kyi's leadership, however, the Southeast Asian country has maintained amicable ties with China.
As China has stepped up "vaccine diplomacy" in a bid to bolster its clout in emerging nations, it has so far planned to donate novel coronavirus vaccines to 52 countries including Myanmar, called "Asia's last frontier."
"For Myanmar, China is a very important neighbor. Their relations are stronger than you think," another diplomatic source in Beijing said.
Once the United States or other democratic nations re-impose sanctions on Myanmar, the country would "become more dependent on China," the source said. "In that case, Washington and Tokyo may be compelled to reconsider their regional security policies."
Under the two-term Barack Obama administration through January 2017, the United States removed a range of economic and financial sanctions on Myanmar, particularly after Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won the 2015 elections.
Obama saw Myanmar's shift to democracy as a key foreign policy achievement, part of the U.S. strategic "rebalance" to Asia. Biden served as Obama's vice president.
But the administration of former President Donald Trump imposed sanctions on Myanmar military officers over human rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims and other minorities.