Recently, Myanmar’s opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) revealed to the media that party leader Aung San Suu Kyi will visit China. More than six months ago, Yang Houlan, China’s ambassador to Myanmar, said that China would invite Aung San Suu Kyi to visit China in “the appropriate time.” Previously, many non-governmental or semi-governmental Chinese organizations had invited Suu Kyi to visit. If she does come to Beijing on an official invitation, this is perhaps a breakthrough in China’s foreign policy toward Myanmar.
In fact, China has been advancing its contacts with Myanmar’s opposition. Particularly, a 12-member NLD delegation came to China for a ten-day visit on May 8, 2013. The delegation included several NLD Central Executive Committee members, NLD members of parliament, and provincial NLD representatives.
The author has learned that the NLD came to China at the invitation of the International Department of the CCP. In April 2013, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, led a delegation of five political parties from Myanmar to visit China, but the NLD was not included.
The visit in May was the first time the NLD sent a high-level delegation to visit China. That demonstrated China was taking more initiative to extend an olive branch to Myanmar’s opposition, a fact of great significance.
Although the news of Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to China hasn’t been publicly confirmed by Chinese authorities, China has been proactively promoting the pragmatic diplomacy with Myanmar’s opposition.
Founded in 1988, NLD is the biggest and most powerful opposition party in Myanmar, with over 1.3 million members. In April 2012, the NLD achieved an historic victory, winning 43 of 44 seats contested by the party in the parliamentary by-election. In May of the same year, NLD chairperson Aung San Suu Kyi and 33 other members of the NLD officially took their oaths as members of the lower house of Myanmar’s parliament.
There was another major event for Myanmar that same year. After U.S. President Barack Obama won reelection in 2012, he selected three countries in Southeast Asia for his first overseas trip. Myanmar was his most important stop.
For several decades, Myanmar has been a friendly neighbor to China. After the drastic political reform seen in recent years, Myanmar’s interactions with the West are blooming. This created a new situation in China-Myanmar relations, which means that China needs a new policy toward Myanmar in order to better safeguard national interests. In a first step, China has already set up a special envoy for Asian affairs to focus on relations with Myanmar.
According to Myanmar’s media analysts, China has been strengthening ties with Myanmar’s opposition with the expectation that, after the 2015 election, such ties will be crucial. Western media generally believe that, if the 2015 general election is held as scheduled, the NLD will be the big winner, meaning Aung San Suu Kyi could become most important person in Myanmar.
When it comes to China-Myanmar ties, Suu Kyi and her NLD opposition party are among the biggest variables. Four years ago, she began to step into politics again after her ten-year house arrest came to an end, and she soon became the hottest representative of democratization in Myanmar. Suu Kyi is now an official opposition leader, publicly recognized by Myanmar and the international community. Although nearly 70 years old, she still appears frequently in the international arena, and has high-ranking contacts in the U.S., Europe and India who are willing to speak for her. In Suu Kyi, the West sees the possibility of completely ending autocratic system in Myanmar – as well as hope for western companies to gradually open the door to Myanmar’s closed economy.
Compared with the West’s fondness for Suu Kyi, her relationship with China appears to be very low-key. So far, only the China ambassador to Myanmar has accepted an invitation to meet with her. It seems a bit mysterious, then, that Aung San Suu Kyi would visit China and have direct contact with high-level Chinese officials. However, based on Myanmar’s domestic situation and international trends, it’s become apparent that fostering closer relationships with Suu Kyi and the NLD is China’s best hope to keep open the channels of communication with Myanmar’s government over the new few years.
There are at least three reasons why China must further strengthen its relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD.
First, further contact with Aung San Suu Kyi can show China’s self-confidence and openness. As the 18th Chinese Party Congress has said, China should show adequate confidence while on the road. In the diplomatic field, the experience accumulated in over 30 years since China’s reform and opening up should be sufficient to demonstrate considerable “diplomatic confidence.” Faced with a complex situation in neighboring Myanmar, China’s foreign policy should become more flexible and nimble in order to adapt accordingly.
Advancing contact with Aung San Suu Kyi can weaken the impression many Westerners have that China can only conduct diplomacy with “failed counties,” those that have great difficulty integrating with the international mainstream. By receiving Suu Kyi, China would also leave the Western media (which loves to demonize China) speechless. At the same time, other regional counties will also see that China’s Southeast Asia policy is more open and inclusive, which will help further strengthen bilateral interactions and establish a new diplomatic image for China.
Second, a relationship with Suu Kyi can better safeguard China’s interests in Myanmar. Some have argued that China should uphold its policy of “non-interference in internal affairs” when handling relations with Myanmar, and thus that China should only communicate with the current government. But the national interests at stake here are far from trivial. Today, Myanmar is not afraid of reform like it was just over two years ago, and Myanmar is no longer a country crippled by international sanctions, with China as its only option for diplomacy. In 2011, Myanmar played the “public opinion card” to suspend a Chinese hydropower project in Myanmar, and today it plays the “democracy card” to attract praise and attention from the West.
There is no turning back for Myanmar’s reforms, meaning it is only a matter of time before Suu Kyi and the opposition come to power. By establishing contact with the opposition early, China can build an early foundation of trust, which will add an extra layer of protection for China’s interests in Myanmar.
Third, by reaching out to Suu Kyi, China can better “compete” with Western countries in Myanmar. Now that Myanmar is opening up, Western countries can break old taboos. For the first time, Western leaders have come to this previously closed country to meet with high-ranking government officials formerly decried as dictators. If the West can liaise with Myanmar’s current government, then there’s no need for China to get tangled up in worries about contacting Suu Kyi. China should consider the “usefulness” of Suu Kyi’s opposition party from a wider perspective.
At the same time, as China strengthens its communications with Suu Kyi, it serves as a warning to the current government: reform and opening up in Myanmar, and especially Myanmar’s new closeness to the West, cannot be allowed to damage China’s political and economic interests in Myanmar. Otherwise, China will show the influences of its “preparations” regarding Myanmar.
In truth, Aung San Suu Kyi’s family has deep roots in China. She herself is not anti-China or extremely dangerous; she is not even a natural ally of the West. What she requires, pursues, and has struggled for all her life are simply the basic demands of any normal citizen. All she wants is for an early realization of the humanistic ideals promoted by Myanmar’s founding father Aung San, Suu Kyi’s own father. On some level, what Suu Kyi represents is also what the Chinese government is pursuing. There are common interests and room for cooperation between the two sides.
If China can reach out to the Syrian opposition thousands of miles away, then there is no reason to ignore an opposition party in a neighboring country, one that could have a great impact on China’s peripheral security. Deepening contact with Suu Kyi is a necessity for China to preserve its interest in Myanmar. Only by improving ties with Suu Kyi can China make its relationship with Myanmar less volatile and more normal.