Daw Aung San Suu Kyi received a red carpet welcome when she touched down at Beijing airport on 17 August, to commence her first official visit to China since taking office.
The landmark five-day trip was Suu Kyi’s first visit to China since becoming State Councillor and de facto leader of Myanmar in April this year. While she has already paid visits to Laos and Thailand, China is the first non-ASEAN country Suu Kyi has dropped in on.
Suu Kyi’s party the National League for Democracy came to power after a landslide victory in last year’s elections. When Myanmar’s former president Mr. Thein Sein stepped down on 1 April, he ended the military junta’s decades-long grip on power (incidentally, The Economist reported that on the day Sein resigned he ‘shaved his head and disappeared into a Buddhist order’).
While Suu Kyi is barred from the presidency due to a clause written into the constitution—which excludes her on the grounds that she married a foreigner—her position as leader of the ruling party, and foreign minister, effectively make her the de facto leader of Myanmar. As the country begins to open up after decades of corrupt military rule, new opportunities have arisen for foreign investment and relationship building.
In the past, Suu Kyi and China have had a tenuous relationship. Best known for winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Suu Kyi spent more than 15 years detained by Myanmar’s former military junta, most of which was served under house arrest. For the majority of this time, China backed Myanmar’s ruling junta and shielded the state from international sanctions.
Despite this, Suu Kyi has insisted that she will be continuing the ‘non-aligned’ neutral foreign policy of her predecessors, which includes a pragmatic approach to China. During her visit she avoided speaking out on thorny issues, including China’s detention of fellow Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo, and the disputed claims in the South China Sea.
Although she is internationally viewed as an icon for democracy, in a 2013 interview with CNN Suu Kyi described herself as a politician, first and foremost:
‘I’m always surprised when people speak as if I’ve just become a politician. I’ve been a politician all along. I started in politics not as a human rights defender or a humanitarian worker, but as the leader of a political party’.
A key item on the agenda for Suu Kyi’s talks was the peace process with Myanmar’s armed ethnic groups, several of which are closely aligned with China. Ahead of the trip, Suu Kyi reaffirmed the importance of a good relationship with China to alleviate ethnic conflict on their shared border, stating, ‘Without peace, there can be no sustained development’.
On this point Beijing was quick to deliver, arranging for a ‘gift’ in the form of a letter signed by three rebel ethnic groups with ties to China, citing their intention to join the upcoming 21st Panglong Conference hosted by Suu Kyi. These talks began on 31 August and aim to bring together armed ethnic groups, the military and the government for peace and reconciliation.
The move is a mutually beneficial one, aligning with China’s plans for economic development in Myanmar. Achieving peace will boost trade across Myanmar’s northern border with China and will allow construction projects to flourish. China is Myanmar’s largest foreign investor and has big plans for the country. During the talks, Myanmar signed on to China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative and welcomed cooperation on the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor.
Suu Kyi’s visit came at an important juncture in the relationship between Myanmar and China, which has seesawed in recent years. One of the main sticking points has been the issue of stalled Chinese construction projects in Myanmar—in particular the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam—due to widespread protests from local communities. Filed in the ‘too hard’ basket for the purposes of her trip, Suu Kyi deferred a decision on the dam by setting up a committee to reassess the project later in the year.
China is not the only country keeping their eye on Myanmar. The United States played an important role in Suu Kyi’s successful election, and she is scheduled to visit the White House later this month. Ahead of her trip, Washington is already considering options for easing sanctions levied against Myanmar, as well as increasing economic engagement.
Following Suu Kyi’s visit, China and Myanmar released a joint-statement reaffirming their commitment to a ‘good-neighborly and friendly policy’ underscored by traditional Paukphaw (fraternal) friendship between the two countries.
How Suu Kyi chooses to balance her newly-kindled friendship with China against that of other suitors, including the United States, could well come to define Myanmar’s place in the region for years to come.
Nicole Tooby is the East Asia Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.
Image credit: European Parliament (Flickr: Creative Commons)