Why Did Myanmar's Opposition Leader Just Visit China?
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Why Did Myanmar's Opposition Leader Just Visit China?


On Sunday, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Myanmar’s main opposition party – the National League for Democracy (NLD)- wrapped up her five-day visit to China.

Only time will tell what exactly the visit will do for China-Myanmar relations in the longer term. What is clear, though, is that for Beijing, the trip is part of an effort to repair and improve relations with its southern neighbor.

Since the military handed power to a nominally civilian government in 2011, Sino-Myanmar relations have seen a steady deterioration: initially over the suspension of the Myitsone hydropower project and more recently over the cross-border spillover of military action taken by Myanmar’s armed forces against the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), an ethnic Chinese insurgent group in the Kokang Special Region. Daw Suu alone cannot bring about major improvements in bilateral ties. But she should would have at least gained valuable additional insights into the spectrum of challenges that her country faces in dealing with China.

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The Public Diplomacy of Sino-Myanmar Relations

Tellingly, Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to China took place just after a seemingly low-key celebration in Yangon of the 65th anniversary of diplomatic relations on 8 June. Organized at the party political level, Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit included meetings with China’s key party and state leaders – President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang. The visit has been floated as an idea for a while now. Last November, the NLD had announced that Suu Kyi would be visiting China. That announcement turned out to be premature as China had failed to confirm the arrangement. One might suspect, then, that it took the recent further slide in bilateral relations over the conflict in the Kokang region for protocol and other questions to be addressed to the complete satisfaction of both sides. Be that as it may, China’s top leadership has successfully instrumentalized the party-to-party channel to receive and court Aung San Suu Kyi at the highest level even though in terms of the offices she holds she is currently only a member of parliament and the leader of an opposition party.

Not much has been revealed about what has been discussed or agreed. Still, the visit underscores Daw Suu’s determination to be a pragmatic politician who also works to represent Myanmar’s interests abroad. Given that she has traveled far less extensively in Myanmar’s more immediate neighborhood than in the West, meeting with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership removes one of the most obvious and perhaps troubling blank spots on Daw Suu’s list of must-do travel destinations. As far as China’s leadership is concerned, the stated objective of the visit was to deepen mutual understanding and trust. This purpose would not be surprising given the distance that has historically existed between Aung San Suu Kyi’s concerns for democracy and human rights and China’s longstanding support for the previous military regime in Myanmar. Moreover, President Xi Jinping has expressed the hope that Myanmar would in future maintain a consistent and positive position on the Sino-Myanmar relationship irrespective of any changes in Myanmar’s domestic politics. In addition, President Xi said that China looks at Myanmar from a strategic and long-term perspective. Both remarks point to the fact that Beijing has a number of significant interests and concerns in relation to Myanmar.

Why Invite Suu Kyi to Beijing?

While Myanmar’s relations with the United States, Japan, the European Union and its member states, and various other nations have generally improved since the previous military regime stepped aside, bilateral ties between Beijing and Naypyidaw have been tested over a range of issues since 2011. Notwithstanding a continued strong trading relationship and the completion of the oft-cited, strategically significant gas and oil pipeline project across Myanmar, China has clearly been rattled by numerous decisions taken by the Thein Sein government and its inability to influence Naypyidaw even on those issues that are very important to the PRC. In this regard, the continued fighting on the China-Myanmar border is hardly the only issue that has affected bilateral ties, even if it is arguably the most serious one to do so over the past couple of months. This is not an issue on which Daw Suu would have been able to do more than to exchange viewpoints with Beijing. So why would the Communist leadership engage Daw Suu?

First, Chinese leaders clearly wish to build up a rapport with Daw Suu. They recognize that she will play a major role in Myanmar’s politics in the foreseeable future even if she may not be able to assume the presidency given the relevant constitutional eligibility criteria and the country’s elite politics. From China’s perspective, it is therefore crucial to build a relationship with the NLD leader.

Second, in Beijing and elsewhere in China, a host of ideas, plans and initiatives exist regarding the strengthening of connectivity and economic exchanges between China and Myanmar. All of them depend on political support in Myanmar. These include the railway link between Yunnan and the Bay of Bengal, Chinese participation in the development of the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone, and Beijing’s ambitious interregional connectivity initiatives such as BCIM (involving Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar) and the larger ‘One Belt, One Road’ plan. No doubt Beijing would want to convince Daw Suu that given the likely benefits for Myanmar’s economy, she should lend her support to new infrastructure and investment projects.  China’s leadership will in all probability also have asked Daw Suu on her views regarding the prospects of a new government lifting the current suspension of the Myitsone hydropower project.

Third, by establishing a relationship with Daw Suu, Chinese leaders arguably are also hoping to signal to Myanmar’s public that China can be a partner that is prepared to cooperate with Myanmar on a basis very different from the past. After all, Beijing appreciates that China has paid a significant public relations price in Myanmar for its less than fully transparent business deals with the previous military junta and ongoing controversies surrounding the practices of Chinese companies. Even while denying China’s involvement, they equally understand that the PRC’s image – particularly perhaps among the military and the urban population in Myanmar – has taken a further battering over the Kokang conflict.

Fourth, hosting Aung San Suu Kyi to Beijing at a time when relations between Beijing and Naypyidaw are so troubled seems designed to send a political message to the ruling hybrid government. Daw Suu’s visit follows that of Speaker Thura Shwe Mann, who visited Beijing in late April 2015 and is widely seen as a strong contender to take over as President from Thein Sein. However, given her meeting with President Xi and other Chinese leaders, Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to China compares very favorably to the one in early April by Myanmar Foreign Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin who was obliged to apologize as special envoy of the President for the death of five Chinese nationals killed as a consequence of a stray cross-border bomb strike. Its careful planning and execution suggests not only a degree of frustration with Myanmar’s current political-military decision-makers, but also a determination to develop new channels of communication on sensitive issues.

Finally, engaging Aung San Suu Kyi at the highest level is also a signal to Washington in the context of geopolitical competition between the U.S. and China. Daw Suu has for long been closely linked to the West, so much so that for some analysts, questions have arisen over the likely consequences for Myanmar’s general foreign policy orientation in the event of her assuming leading office. From Beijing’s perspective, it is important to ensure that Myanmar remains committed to non-alignment. While the government in Naypyidaw has not relinquished this foreign policy principle, it is clear that the diversification of foreign policy since 2011 has moved Myanmar closer to Washington and Japan in particular. Indeed, depending on the outcome of the 2015 elections and the nature of the government formed, it is possible that the Obama administration will reconsider its current position on military engagement. In this context, China’s leaders clearly hope that irrespective of the position of political authority she will occupy in the future, Daw Suu will give careful consideration to ties between Naypyidaw and Beijing.

Implications for Bilateral Ties

In the longer term, the visit by Daw Suu to China may perhaps be viewed as a new beginning for bilateral relations. Yet in the short-term, it is far from certain whether the political antagonism between Beijing and the Thein Sein government, not least over the border conflict, can be resolved quickly.

Beijing is adamant that the Kokang conflict – like other conflicts involving the government and ethnic armed organizations in Myanmar- should be addressed through peaceful negotiations. Myanmar’s military has been quite irate over developments in the Kokang Special Region, which is no surprise given the hundreds of casualties apparently sustained in fighting the MNDAA since February 2015. On the other side, some in Myanmar have seen a hidden Chinese hand in the insurrection, and this perception would appear to have reinforced the military leadership’s decision to be resolute. Indeed, notwithstanding Beijing’s threats about ‘firm and decisive action’ in the event of further cross-border strikes, Myanmar’s armed forces have sought a military rather than political solution.

This has not always turned out well, with a few instances of late involving misfiring and the injuring of Chinese civilians. In response, China has resorted to coercive diplomacy by staging military training drills right on the border, which may have in turn been a contributing factor to the MNDAA declaring a unilateral ceasefire on 11 June at the time of Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to China. Yet the government in Myanmar has refused to reconsider its military solution thus far.

Its position on excluding the MNDAA – much like the case of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army or the Arakan Army – from any nationwide ceasefire arrangement also continues to hold for the time being. In recent summit conferences, Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations groups like the Wa and the Kachin have called precisely for the inclusion of the MNDAA and its two allies. But the meeting of ethnic leaders at Law Khee Lar in June produced no fundamentally different outcome. Accordingly, it seems as if the fighting in Kokang has made a nationwide or at least comprehensive ceasefire agreement even less likely at the present time than it was already.

Myanmar’s leaders have many good reasons to be cautious about how they approach relations with China. And from the perspective of some in Naypyidaw, it may seem as if Chinese pressure on Myanmar has increased and will remain so in the near future. The Thein Sein government may still agree with China that their comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership should be advanced. But as long as the two sides favor a different strategy in order to deal with what to both represents a very significant issue, it remains difficult to see how this can be achieved across the board. Aung San Suu Kyi will thus have plenty to think about as she will almost certainly have grapple with the question of how Myanmar should forge its relationship with China in the future.

Jurgen Haacke is Associate Professor in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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