Guest Column

Myths of Suu Kyi’s Mysterious Trip to China

By Yun Sun 18 November 2014

Earlier this month, the National League for Democracy (NLD) announced that the party’s chairperson, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, would visit China in December, generating much excitement and curiosity about the democracy icon’s policy toward China and its implications for the 2015 elections.

The announcement was made on Nov. 3 by a member of the NLD executive committee, U Win Htein. The next day, however, the information about her trip was quietly refuted by the Chinese Foreign Ministry when its spokesperson announced that they had no exact information about Suu Kyi’s visit. Chinese vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenming further commented that the Chinese side only heard about the trip from the Myanmar [Burmese] media and he did not know about the arrangements. In the end, Suu Kyi herself had to acknowledge that the schedule for the visit was still unconfirmed.

The inconsistency is rather embarrassing for Suu Kyi and her party. Apparently, consensus had not been reached about the trip at the time of the announcement. For the NLD to prematurely make the announcement only to be politely denied by China and retracted by Suu Kyi not only tarnishes the images of the NLD and its leader by making them appear incoherent and uncoordinated, but it also adds unnecessary noise to their relationship with China.

China has extended the olive branch to Suu Kyi—often affectionately called the Lady—and the NLD since 2011. Former and current Chinese ambassadors have met with Suu Kyi a number of times to build ties and discuss China-Myanmar relations. This past February, the deputy chief of the International Department of the Chinese Communist Party, Ai Ping, also visited the NLD headquarter in Yangon [Rangoon]. In 2013, China invited and hosted four NLD delegations to visit China, the last of which—in December—was headed by NLD spokesperson U Nyan Win. From the Chinese perspective, NLD has become an influential political force in Myanmar and its domestic and foreign policies inevitably affect China’s relationship with and national interests in Myanmar. To establish and maintain a positive and healthy relationship with Suu Kyi and the NLD is in China’s interest.

However, Beijing’s position should not be interpreted as an endorsement of Suu Kyi’s political ambitions. China prefers to develop ties with all political forces in Myanmar, a bitter and expensive lesson learned from its previous prioritization of relations with only the government. While China would like to lay the foundation and prepare for a bigger political role by Suu Kyi and NLD after the 2015 elections, it will not go as far as taking her side or supporting her campaign to revise the Constitution. As the constitutional revision to the restriction of her qualification becomes increasingly unlikely, her future political role is recognized, but in a constricted manner.

Yun Sun is a fellow with the East Asia program at the Henry L. Stimson Center and a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution.
Yun Sun is a fellow with the East Asia program at the Henry L. Stimson Center and a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution.

The recovery of China-Myanmar relations over the past year offers China some confidence that the bilateral relationship has stabilized and could withstand a change of leadership. Furthermore, it suggests that even if Suu Kyi were to become the new president, she would not damage the bilateral ties with China, as she has often reiterated her commitment to friendly relations. As the chairperson of the investigation committee of the Chinese-backed Letpadaung copper mine, her conclusion eventually led to resumption of the project. The Chinese generally expect that China-Myanmar relations would not suffer major setbacks during and after the 2015 elections, a reasonable assessment considering the shifting priorities of the Myanmar domestic politics and foreign policy, as well as how China handled upheavals and turbulence since 2011.

Suu Kyi’s wish to visit China is understandable—at the very least she wishes to demonstrate that she could work with China, and any support she could muster for her domestic campaign would be welcome. However, she might want to set realistic expectations about how much China would support her political campaign and the constitutional revisions she desires. The goal of China is to build and maintain good relations with all political parties in the country so that no one is neglected or alienated. China sees neither need nor benefit of picking a side in what’s literally a domestic political fight in Myanmar.

The one fundamental and intriguing fact about China’s relationship with Suu Kyi is that despite repeated statements from Chinese officials that she will be invited, to date that visit has not happened. The issue begs for explanation. Indeed, unofficial or semi-official Chinese organizations have issued these invitations, including one by the China Association of International Friendly Contact in 2013, but Suu Kyi seems to prefer to be invited by the Chinese government in her official capacity. In China, the International Department of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party is in charge of party diplomacy and the National People’s Congress is in charge of congressional exchanges. In normal situations, they would be the proper government institutions to invite and host Suu Kyi as the leader of Myanmar’s opposition party and a member of the parliament. The question is whether she would accept an invitation by the party or by the National People’s Congress, or only by other more prominent Chinese authorities. Nevertheless, there are different views that she should not be too picky about the hosting organization if her primary goal is to reassure China and build ties.

Suu Kyi has received royal treatment in other parts of the world. She was invited to visit the UK by Prime Minister David Cameron, to visit the United States by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012 and to visit Japan by the Japanese Foreign Ministry in 2013. She received the Congressional Medal in Washington, addressed both houses of parliament at Westminster Hall in London and met with heads of states wherever she visited. Whether China will grant her such high status and match those diplomatic protocols is a question of political appropriateness for Beijing. Regardless of her international recognition and status as a Nobel peace laureate, Suu Kyi is an opposition leader and may Chinese believe she should be treated as such. Justifying the elevation of her diplomatic status to that of a democracy icon would be a difficult case to make in China.

This begs the question of how Suu Kyi will handle the issue of democracy in China. If she wants to court Beijing’s friendship, it would be unwise for her to promote Western democratic values. If she avoids the topic, it will tarnish her most valuable political capital—the democratic ideals that she represents. Even worse, if confronted with difficult questions such as the Occupy Central protest movement in Hong Kong, any position she takes will leave her vulnerable to criticism.

Yun Sun is a fellow with the East Asia program at the Henry L. Stimson Center and a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution.