As Suu Kyi Eyes Election Triumph, Beijing Goes Courting

By Aung Zaw 10 July 2015

Beijing’s recent courting of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was deliberate and well-calculated. At a time when the political maneuvering in Myanmar is heating up ahead of elections later this year, “The Lady” flew to Beijing in June to meet Chinese president Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People.

Should her visit surprise anyone?

In the minds of Chinese leaders, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s invitation letter was effectively penned after she made visits to the White House and other Western capitals in 2012. Beijing could not simply sit back and watch the influential opposition leader be subsumed exclusively into the Western orbit.

The government invited senior members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) to China for discussions over the last two years, laying the groundwork for last month’s high-level meeting.

On Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s part, she sent a signal of appeasement to China in 2013 when she led a commission that green-lighted the controversial Chinese-backed Letpadaung copper mine project despite significant local opposition.

Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.
Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.
Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.

“We have to get along with the neighboring country, whether we like it or not,” she said amid the wave of ensuing criticism.

Once dubbed the “darling of the West,” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi recently accused the US and others of complacency on Myanmar policy. “The United States and the West in general are too optimistic and a bit of healthy skepticism would help everybody a great deal,” she said.

While the US and its allies have seemingly become more tolerant of the Myanmar government, the relationship between Naypyitaw and Beijing has soured since the 2011 suspension of the US$3.6 billion China-backed Myitsone hydropower project in northern Kachin State. Needless to say, China was not happy with the decision and has sought to have the project revived.

Tensions have also recently arisen over conflict in the Kokang Special Region along the Sino-Myanmar border which has spilled over into Yunnan, leaving several Chinese villagers dead or injured. China’s People’s Liberation Army carried out a live-fire drill along the border last month that was widely viewed as a warning to the Myanmar government.

Interestingly, the day after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s plane landed in Beijing, the Kokang group that has been battling the Myanmar Army since February declared a unilateral ceasefire. Yang Houlan, China’s outgoing ambassador to Myanmar, told Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing that the Chinese government had contacted Kokang leaders to stop military operations and solve problems through political means. Was the timing a coincidence?

Sending Signals

Despite friction, China remains Myanmar’s largest investor, accounting for about US$14.6 billion in cumulative investments—nearly a third of all FDI. The country has invested in just about every sector of Myanmar’s budding economy, with a particularly strong foothold in hydropower, gas and oil and with grand plans, such as a railway line linking Yunnan and Rakhine State, still in the offing.

China views Myanmar as crucial to securing strategic access to the Indian Ocean. But seeing the rise of Western influence in the country once dubbed a Chinese “client state” has given Beijing pause.

What if Western companies ramp up their investment in Myanmar, where resentment toward Chinese firms runs deep? What if US-Myanmar relations continue to improve? Chinese leaders realize the country could lose the advantage it once had when Myanmar was internationally ostracized and cut off from Western investment.

Beijing knew that inviting Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to China, with its history of support for Myanmar’s previous military junta, was complicated, but could also win the hearts and minds of many Myanmar citizens. In reaching out to the NLD leader, China was bypassing the Myanmar generals, whom it senses harbor a degree of anti-Chinese sentiment.

The visit also sent a signal to the West that China remains a key player in Myanmar affairs, even as the US, the EU and others step up their engagement with the once pariah nation.

In an English-language editorial, the state-run Xinhua News Agency said Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit was a sign that the Communist Party not only communicates with parties with “the same ideology, but also those with a different political vision.”

“China welcomes anyone with friendly intentions and it bears no grudge for past unpleasantness,” the editorial said.

In fact, China has been courting four potential post-election leaders in Myanmar. President Xi Jinping has separately hosted President U Thein Sein, Myanmar Army chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing and Union Parliament Speaker U Shwe Mann in Beijing.

Many are curious to know what the Chinese president and the Myanmar opposition leader spoke about during their meeting in Beijing. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been tightlipped about the visit, telling the Washington Post only that it was “a good discussion” and that “we all understand neighbors have to live in peace and harmony.”

Many activists called on the NLD leader to speak up for imprisoned Chinese dissident, writer and fellow Nobel Peace prize winner Liu Xiaobo during her meetings in China. Sadly, this was always wishful thinking.

Like other seasoned politicians around the world, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is guided by pragmatism; she is no longer an icon of democracy and human rights. China knows this and hence felt comfortable inviting her to Beijing.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s shrewd political pragmatism may come from her father, Gen. Aung San, who led an alliance with the Japanese in order to drive out the British colonialists. He later switched sides, back to the British, in order to dislodge the Japanese. In the view of many Myanmar, Gen. Aung San is respected as a leader willing to cut a deal with either friends or enemies to achieve his goal: the nation’s independence.

Beijing may view Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as the best chance of securing its stake in the country. She is bound to be an influential political player after the elections and, if properly courted, might be willing to endorse Chinese investments and calm rising anti-China sentiment among the public.

Whether supporting China-backed development projects and large-scale investment is in the best interests of the nation is, however, an open question.

This is a new ball game, where China has decided to make a move with one eye on the November poll. The invitation to Myanmar’s opposition leader may hint that China has already placed a first bet on where political influence will lie in Myanmar’s post-election landscape.

Although it would publically state the exact opposite, for Beijing, the coming election in its troubled neighbor is much more than an “internal affair.”

This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.