Myanmar and China, an improbable courtship

Published on August 22, 2016

By Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen

Nikkei Asian Review – August 22, 2016

By choosing China for her first overseas trip outside of Southeast Asia since becoming Myanmar’s state counselor and de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi sent a powerful message to the world.

China greeted her with a state-level reception at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Aug. 18 in recognition of the importance of her role in the National League for Democracy government, which came to power in April.

Once shunned by China, the former political prisoner and Nobel laureate met both Premier Li Keqiang and President Xi Jinping and held wide-ranging talks during the visit.

Two agreements on economic and technological cooperation, among others, will result in the building of two new hospitals and a strategic bridge in Kunlong, 32km from the Chinese border in northeastern Myanmar’s Kokang region. Suu Kyi also invited Li to visit Myanmar.

It is clear that both countries have a mutual desire and enthusiasm to strengthen bilateral ties. The significance of the visit could be summed up in three areas. The first is confidence-building measures, the second is stability in their shared border areas and the third is trade and investment.

In terms of confidence-building, the Chinese leadership had concerns whether the democratically elected Myanmar government would attach the same importance to the bilateral relationship as did the long-ruling military junta and the quasi-civilian government of President Thein Sein. When the NLD formed the first civilian government in decades, there was speculation it would end or reduce the country’s heavy dependence on China, or even adopt an unfriendly attitude.

These fears stemmed from China’s steady support of Myanmar’s junta over the decades when Suu Kyi and her opposition group waged their pro-democracy campaign. Beijing ignored calls by the international community to use its influence on Myanmar for the release of political prisoners, including Suu Kyi.

Moreover, China, together with Russia, exercised its veto power at the United Nations Security Council to block a draft resolution on Myanmar in January 2007. The resolution called for the Myanmar government to cease military attacks on civilians in ethnic minority regions and begin a substantive political dialogue that would lead to a genuine democratic transition.

Suu Kyi’s visit reassured the Chinese government and bolstered its international image, as Li pointedly noted when he told her: “China is the first country you’ve visited outside the Association of Southeast Asia Nations after taking office as state counselor, showing the importance the government of Myanmar and you yourself have attached to the bilateral relations.”

Xi reiterated the importance of strengthening bilateral ties when he said: “China attaches great importance to developing relations with Myanmar,” adding that “we should adhere to the correct direction, to push for new progress in bilateral relations and to bring tangible benefits to the two peoples.”

Further improvement of bilateral ties is equally, if not more, important for Suu Kyi and her government. She told Li that the Myanmar government “highly valued” its ties with China and was committed to strengthening relations by continuing high-level exchanges, enhancing political trust, boosting cooperation in fields such as cross-border trade and agriculture, and maintaining stability in border areas.

This highlighted the second issue, of stability in the border areas. The inherent mistrust and hostility between the Myanmar army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army that operate along the China-Myanmar border areas, as well as the affiliated Arakan Army, has been a major concern to the new Myanmar government.

The TNLA or the Kokang people are ethnically Chinese and the MNDAA is being led by an ethnic Chinese, underscoring the crucial role of China in Myanmar’s peace process.

Myanmar is aware of China’s ability to influence these armed groups. A cease-fire or cessation of hostilities with the three groups is especially crucial just ahead of major peace talks, known as the 21st Panglong conference, to be led by Suu Kyi at the end of August.

Any missteps in the push to resolve the decades-old conflicts with ethnic minorities will be considered a significant failure by the NLD government, since the party promised peace in its election manifesto and has declared it a major policy objective.

It was widely seen as a diplomatic achievement for Myanmar when Li told Suu Kyi that China would continue to play a constructive role in promoting a peaceful settlement.

The third and possibly most important issue was trade and investment. Myanmar’s location offers access to the Indian Ocean and is strategically important to China and its “One Belt, One Road” trade and infrastructure initiative. Moreover, China is Myanmar’s largest trading partner with total two-way trade amounting to $15.6 billion in 2015.

One major problem in the relationship is China’s stalled $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam project in northeastern Myanmar, which was suspended by the Thein Sein government in 2011 amid strong public opposition arising from environmental concerns.

Suu Kyi was then among the project’s opponents. Although opposition is likely to continue, she indicated to China’s leaders that the NLD government is willing to consider a solution that would suit the interests of both countries.

In fact, Myanmar’s President Htin Kyaw announced days before Suu Kyi’s visit that a 20-member commission would be created to evaluate dam projects on the Irrawaddy River, including the Myitsone Dam, and report by Nov. 11.

The broad message from Suu Kyi’s China visit is that pragmatism is now more important than what type of government is involved — whether it is a communist, military or democratically elected administration. The issue of democracy and human rights in this respect is less important in formulating a foreign policy where there is a mutual interest in cooperation, such as in the case of Myanmar and China.

With her visit, Suu Kyi indicated that the strengthening of bilateral relations was a voluntary choice, not a coerced move. More significant, her decision to travel to China ahead of her U.S. trip in mid-September indicates how Naypyitaw wants to center its foreign policy around the economy and internal stability. It also signals that the NLD government wants to play a balancing game between Myanmar’s neighboring countries and Western democracies.

It will be a different situation when Suu Kyi meets U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington and addresses the U.N. General Assembly in New York. She will likely ask the international community to be patient and support Myanmar’s bid for peace and national reconciliation with ethnic and religious minorities.

The underyling goal for Suu Kyi and her NLD government is to strengthen diplomatic ties with all major global powers, from China to the U.S., Europe and Japan. Some may call this a pragmatic or realistic approach in international politics.

Others may see it as an opportunistic or even cynical form of diplomacy. Reinforcing the latter impression, Suu Kyi’s pragmatic policy appears to leave her no room to speak out on human rights and democratic reforms in China — or elsewhere in the world.

Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is assistant professor and executive director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University.

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