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Aung San Suu Kyi's Visit to China: A Realistic Move

CIIS Time: Aug 23, 2016 Writer: Ning Shengnan Editor: Wang Jiapei

 

Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi will arrive in Beijing on August 17 for a four-day visit. This is her first visit to Beijing after formally assuming her office, and she is also the first Myanmar leader to visit China since the new government was formed in late March.

 

Ever since the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD) won the election of Myanmar, there has been immense interest and curiosity around how the new government’s foreign policy would orient and play out. Hence this visit has aroused attention from all parties. Concerning this upcoming trip, there're two questions that have been asked often: “why China” and “why now” ?

 

"Why China?" many western analysts ask they believe that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi should and also would abandon China for the West after taking power. Yet these assertions are both unfounded and naive. Geographically, as China is Myanmar's biggest neighbor, a remote even troubled Sino-Myanmar relationship would bring no good to peace and stability of her country, as well as to the whole region.

 

The bilateral economic ties have witnessed a decline in the post-reform period, in particular the suspension of the Myitsone hydropower project and a sharp downturn in Chinese investments, but economically China is still the top trading partner and largest investment source of Myanmar.

 

In a long history of extreme underdevelopment, it is of most urgency for the new Myanmar government to push for economic growth, which would probably become the key factor of sustaining its high support rate after successfully gaining power.

 

The two countries have been holding friendly and pragmatic attitudes towards each other. During Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s last visit to China in 2015, President Xi Jinping said that “China always treats the China-Myanmar relationship from a strategic and long-term perspective”. On the other hand, pragmatism has become the keynote of Myanmar’s new foreign policy. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has made a famous depiction of the Sino-Myanmar relations that unlike married couples who “could always get a divorce if they do not get along, nothing can be done to change the fact that China and Myanmar are each other's neighbor.”

 

Then "why now?" Why does Aung San Suu Kyi choose this moment to visit China? The internal issues and the economic cooperation are the two obvious reasons. Myanmar’s new government is determined to end ethnic conflicts, which have haunted this southeast nation for years. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has announced that Myanmar would hold the 21st century Panglong conference on August 31. Representatives of the government, ethnic armed groups and political parties would be convened together to discuss and negotiate for a peaceful settlement. Since China has the historical linkages with these multiple parties, the new government hopes that China could play a mediating role in the process of reconciliation.

 

Also, Myanmar is keen on continuing the economic cooperation with China as well as gaining financial support from its big neighbor. On August 12, Myanmar's new president announced that a new committee concerning Myitsone hydropower project would be established and they will reevaluate the possibilities and difficulties of this project. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to further discuss this issue with Chinese officials during her stay in Beijing.

 

After China, Aung San Suu Kyi will visit the United States next month. However, even since the NLD assumed power, the US has been keeping pressing it to improve the situation of Myanmar’s Muslim, the Rohingya minority. Aung San Suu Kyi has been severely criticized for her silence on this issue.

 

Also, the US has been slow in easing its sanctions on Myanmar. Analysts believe that Myanmar needs to, and indeed is trying to balance its relations with China and the US. As Myanmar recalibrates its foreign policy, moving too close to either side is not a practical option. On the contrary, the more effectively Myanmar adjusts the relations with its major players, the more space the country would win.

 

 

The author is a research assistant at the Department for Developing Countries Studies, China Institute of International Studies.

 

 

Source: Asian Pacific Today, August 16, 2016.