In former times, Burmese and foreign observers considered Burma’s generals well versed at playing international powers off against one another.
Now it is Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s current de facto leader, who is visiting China. Many in the region, and in the West, will be assessing her diplomatic skills in engaging the Chinese and reconciling China’s interests in Burma with rising Western influence.
During Hillary Clinton’s breakthrough visit to Burma in 2011, Suu Kyi said that Burma wanted to maintain “good, friendly relations with China, our very close neighbor, and not just with China but the rest of the world.”
Suu Kyi’s visit to Beijing this week is an attempt to make good on this statement. On the agenda for her meetings with Chinese leaders is Burma’s peace process and China’s controversial mega investment projects in Burma. Her leadership skills will be tested.
Like previous leaders, civilian or military, Suu Kyi made the right decision to visit Burma’s powerful neighbor before heading to the West. It would be provocative, and create ill feeling, if she had first chosen to visit Washington first.
Since assuming power, she has visited Laos and Thailand, where she won more friends and allies in the region. She should do well in Beijing. Likewise, China’s adjustment to political changes in Burma is increasingly evident.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi flew to Burma in early April, shortly after the formation of the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, making him the first foreign dignity to pay his respects to Burma’s new administration—a demonstration of Burma’s continued importance to China. Wang Yi conveyed president Xi Jinping’s invitation to Suu Kyi to visit China.
In June of last year, Beijing surprised everyone by hosting Suu Kyi, as head of the NLD and leader of the opposition. She received red carpet treatment, meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping. It was a sign that Beijing was ready to outmaneuver Western governments, including the US. China’s engagement with Burma has since stepped up.
Last week, Beijing deputed the Communist Party’s head of international relations, Song Tao, to visit Burma and meet not only with Suu Kyi, but also with Burma’s armed forces chief Min Aung Hlaing, former President Thein Sein—who invited Beijing’s displeasure with his suspension of the Myitsone Dam in 2011—and Shwe Mann, the powerful former parliamentary speaker and current ally of Suu Kyi.
To the surprise of many, Burma’s former supreme leader, ex-Snr-Gen Than Shwe—who generally keeps well out of public view—received Song Tao at his residence.
Than Shwe and his subordinates in the ruling junta before 2011 were seen as selling off Burma’s natural resources, allowing China to build several dams and oil and gas pipelines running from Burma’s Arakan coast to China’s Yunnan Province. These concessions consolidated China’s strategic position in Burma.
The recent meeting with Than Shwe was testament both to China’s long arm and its history of relations with elite political forces in Burma.
The visit to Than Shwe’s opulent Naypyidaw residence (probably built by gas money from China) was private, but the former junta head reportedly told his Chinese guests that China was a “good neighbor” and “friend,” and thanked China for “supporting” Burma’s economic and social development.
Over the last two decades, Than Shwe—now into his 80s, and still firmly under US sanctions—made numerous visits to China. His extensive friendship with, and business connections in, China should not be underestimated.
After reforms were launched in 2011, Beijing was forced to adjust its policy towards Burma, a country once considered to be firmly within its sphere of influence; it was caught short by the rapid political change in Burma.
Burma’s re-engagement with the West made Beijing nervous. In January 2012, the US normalized its relations with Burma and substantially upped its influence. Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Burma.
Perhaps to irk Beijing, the US applauded the decision of the previous Burmese government to suspend construction of the multi-billion dollar Chinese-backed Myitsone Dam project in northern Burma.
The US has always denied that re-engaging Burma has anything to do with China—but it does. Re-engagement from the West has raised the stakes in Burma. Options have multiplied for Suu Kyi and all key players—particularly in cultivating friends and allies other than China—now that the country is no longer a pariah.
The suspension of the US$3.6 billion Myitsone Dam project—on which $42.5 million of Chinese money had already been spent—was a big lesson for China, which is determined not to allow a repeat of such incidents in Burma.
Many expect the dam to feature prominently on Suu Kyi’s agenda in Beijing. Ahead of her visit, President Htin Kyaw formed a new commission to evaluate all proposed hydropower projects on the Irrawaddy River. It must submit its first assessment report to the President’s desk by November 11. This was a calculated move, since Suu Kyi is now able to defer any firm positions on the dam while meeting with President Xi in Beijing.
The truth is, any resumption of the Myitsone Dam is a non-starter; Suu Kyi wouldn’t risk the ensuing public discontent. In July, an editorial in state-run newspaper The Mirror called for the cancellation of the Myitsone Dam.
However, the oil and gas pipelines linking China’s Yunnan Province to Burma’s Arakan coast is more important than the Myitsone Dam. The former military regime in Burma reached an agreement with Beijing on the dual pipelines in 2006, with construction beginning in 2010, when two countries celebrated their 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations.
The multi-billion dollar pipelines offer Beijing strategic access to the Bay of Bengal via Burma, allowing it to counter India’s influence and growing naval capabilities in the Indian Ocean. New Delhi shifted its Burma policy away from that of the West back in 1993, due to China’s speedy engagement and rising influence in Burma.
In Burma’s conflict-ridden northern borderlands, China remains a key player, continuing its tacit support to ethnic armed groups now engaged in the formal peace process.
Sun Guoxiang, China’s Special Envoy on Asian Affairs, addressed the summit of ethnic armed groups in Mai Ja Yang, Kachin State in late July, saying that China backed “all the forces that support internal peace in Burma.” No western diplomats were to be seen.
“We expect that all ethnic armed groups will join the 21st Century Panglong Conference,” Sun Guoxiang told The Irrawaddy, referring to the Union Peace Conference scheduled to begin on August 31.
Beijing has shown an increasing interest in stability along its long shared border with Burma. “It is crucial for Burma to achieve internal peace,” Sun Guoxiang said, citing the “payoff” the country would receive.
Reading these messages, one might assume that Beijing is playing along with Suu Kyi’s peace plan. However, Beijing is unlikely to compromise on its strategic interests and investment, no matter how far Western influence rises in Burma.
During Hillary Clinton’s visit to Burma in 2011, The Global Times, a Chinese government mouthpiece, wrote that China did not oppose Burma seeking an improved relationship with the West, but wouldn’t accept its interests being “stomped on.”
It is a complicated relationship indeed—China knows Suu Kyi holds the key.
Suu Kyi will be pragmatic, and some will find this hard to swallow. In November, she told the state-owned Xinhua news agency, “We’ll pay special attention to our relations in order to make them smooth, effective and clear.”
“Ties between neighbors are always more delicate than that between countries far apart,” Suu Kyi said.
In comparison to previous Burmese leaders, Suu Kyi will face daunting challenges in rebalancing Burma’s relationship with China, on the one hand, and the West, on the other—while serving the interest of the Burmese public, and trying not to overly upset powerful former generals who developed strong ties with Beijing.
But she knows she will have to set the record straight and repair past damage, while setting a new tone in Burma’s relationship with China. Most importantly, she can’t disappoint the Burmese people, who are counting on her leadership—and are hoping she won’t come back empty handed.