Aung San Suu Kyi is visiting China again, this time as Myanmar’s head of state.
The famous stateswoman is currently residing in Beijing’s Diaoyutai State Guesthouse as part of a four day trip to meet with China’s leadership. Arriving in Beijing on August 17th, Suu Kyi’s visit is a culmination of recent talks with Minister of State Security Geng Huichang and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital city.
— The Myanmar Times (@TheMyanmarTimes) August 15, 2016
— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) August 17, 2016
This marks the first time that China has received Myanmar’s leader since the establishment of the country’s new government earlier in March of this year. It also marks Suu Kyi’s first foreign trip in her capacity as head of government, in contrast with her previous visit as opposition leader last June amid strained diplomatic relations.
Widely respected by the country’s 54 million people, Suu Kyi rose to prominence in the 1980s for her opposition against Myanmar’s military junta. Detained for 24 years, the Nobel Laureate was released following a wave of political relaxation and has participated fervently in Burmese politics. Her party, the National League of Democracy, won a landslide victory in the 2015 elections and she was later appointed by fellow party colleague President Htin Kyaw as head of government.
However, the transition from party politics to government has been a struggle for Suu Kyi’s administration. The Wall Street Journal reports that the new government faces a barrage of criticism, from complaints about the “slow pace of change” to its handling of ethnic tensions inside the country. Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesman U Kyaw Zay Ya commented that given that the new government has only been in power for around 100 days, “people’s expectations are too high.” Experts view that easing tensions with China would give Suu Kyi’s fledgling administration vital support.
Having invested heavily in Myanmar’s infrastructure and energy projects, the Chinese government sees Suu Kyi’s visit as a golden opportunity to improve “strategic communication and practical cooperation” with the resource rich country. “[The visit] holds great significance to comprehensive strategic cooperative partners between both countries,” Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang said. “It will advance China-Myanmar relationship, and bring benefit to the people of both nations.”
Previously a close ally of China, Myanmar’s relations with its giant neighbor have declined over the past five years amid a wave of political reforms which have swayed the Southeast Asian nation closer to the West. In addition, disenchanted voices among the populace over perceived exploitation of natural resources by large Chinese corporations has led to setbacks in numerous joint Chinese-Burmese construction projects.
In particular, the Wall Street Journal noted how the country’s former military junta had suspended construction on the Myitsone Dam in 2011 amid rising concern about China’s growing economic influence in Myanmar, given its unequal share of the power the dam would generate (90% of the dam’s power output would go to China) and large environmental repercussions of the project. Suu Kyi was one of the main figures who opposed continuing the dam’s construction.
Yet, with Suu Kyi now leading the new government, new approaches were being discussed over the Myitsone Dam. Prior to the visit, President Htin Kyaw had appointed a 20-member commission to review the proposed project, allowing Suu Kyi to show that “Myanmar no longer has a closed mind” on joint construction initiatives. Professor emeritus David I. Steinberg called it is “a smart way to deflect pressure” from either China or her supporters because she can attribute her final decision on supporting or refusing the project based on decisions made by the commission.
The New York Times reported that Beijing has “become more flexible” in regards to the Myitsone Dam, having opened more opportunities and incentives for future cooperation. A compensation of $800 million was brought onto the negotiation table should both sides agree to cancel the dam’s construction, while Suu Kyi has suggested smaller hydro projects that would cause less environmental harm.
On the other hand, experts noted that closer relations with Beijing would gave Suu Kyi more leverage in the upcoming peace talks between the government and ethnic militant groups. The porous and volatile border between China and Myanmar is home to the Kachin and Wa ethnic groups, both of whome have been involved in decades of warfare against the military junta. By giving China the role of mediator, Suu Kyi seeks to end the ongoing flow of arm supplies into the region, as well as potentially reaching a conclusion to conflict in the region.
“China holds many of the keys to ending decades of armed conflict,” Myanmar official Thant Myint-U said. “The question is what the price of increasing dependence on China will be.”
Nevertheless, the Global Times asserted that Beijing continues to value its relationship with Naypyidaw. It urges Suu Kyi to “attach importance to China,” stating that Myanmar “cannot deliberately ignore China’s good-neighborly policy and China’s national strength.”
By Arnie Yung
[Images from Apple Daily/ on.cc/ 101media/ Storm media/ The Irrawaday/ HK01/ Ministry of Foreign Affairs Myanmar/ Myanmar State Counsellor Office]