Guest Column

With Suu Kyi and China, It’s Complicated

By Yun Sun 24 December 2013

In less than two years, Burma will have its first presidential election since the political reform. Whether opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will be eligible for the presidency remains unknown. However, president or not, she will continue to be a key political force shaping the country’s future. For China, after two years of policy adjustments to cope with the new reality in Burma, the question of how to clearly define and properly handle relations with the Nobel Peace Prize laureate has become increasingly urgent. In the most immediate term, whether and how to invite her for a formal official visit is a key issue that needs an answer.

China has not had the smoothest relationship with the democratic icon since 1990. That year, the Chinese Embassy in Burma initially accepted the results of the multi-party elections and allegedly sent a letter of congratulations to Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which won by a landslide. This response was harshly criticized by Burma’s military government, which rejected the election results. The incident affected bilateral ties, encouraging China to pull its ambassador out of Rangoon from mid-1990 until July 1991.

The lesson was so serious that in order to preempt a similar situation, China left the ambassador position open during the November 2010 elections. Ambassador Ye Dabo went back to Beijing in September 2010, while his successor Li Junhua did not arrive in Burma until late December. During this period, the embassy in Rangoon carefully minimized contact with Suu Kyi and the NLD out of considerations for the military government’s sensitivity. As a result, Chinese diplomats, officials, scholars and businesses had almost no relationship with the diplomatic opposition.

The lack of contact was not a major problem before 2011, since the military government made all the calls and was the only actor that China needed to deal with. But with political reform, Suu Kyi has become such a critical political figure in Burma that no one can afford to overlook her. Her party won 43 of 46 parliamentary seats in the 2012 by-elections, while she became chairperson of the rule of law committee of the Lower House in 2012. She also chaired the investigation committee on the Chinese Letpadaung copper mine project.

In dealing with such an important politician, China needs to not only build ties almost from scratch, but also to overcome the harsh feelings that Suu Kyi herself might have, considering China’s long support for the military government that put her under house arrest for 15 years.

The Chinese Embassy in Rangoon has taken some initiative to mend ties starting two years ago. On Dec. 15, 2011, then Chinese ambassador Li Junhua held the first official meeting with Suu Kyi in 20 years. Since then, Chinese diplomats, scholars, journalists and business representatives have frequented the NLD’s headquarter in Rangoon to “normalize” relations with the opposition leader and her party. In April this year, the new Chinese ambassador to Burma, Yang Houlan, visited Suu Kyi within one month of his arrival. In an unprecedented move, he also reportedly attended her birthday reception in June.

In addition, several NLD delegations have been invited by Chinese authorities to visit China, including one delegation of NLD central executive committee members in May and another of NLD youth members in June. The most recent delegation visited Beijing earlier this month at the official invitation of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and met with an array of senior Chinese officials, including the vice foreign minister, chairman of the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, and the vice chair of the International Relations Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

In reciprocity, or simply because she is a politician, Suu Kyi has made some strategic moves that have significantly improved Beijing’s assessment of her and of her potential policy toward China. Under her leadership, the investigation committee of the Letpadaung project approved the continuation of the copper mine, a joint venture between the Burmese government, a Burmese military-backed company and China’s Wanbao company. She spoke publicly about how Burma needs to honor its pre-existing contracts with China, leading to wild imaginations in China about her possible support of the controversial Myitsone dam. She has committed herself and the NLD to developing a good relationship with China, denying that different political systems would hinder such a prospect. These are all perceived to be very “reassuring” for Beijing.

With goodwill from both sides, the natural next step would seem to be a visit by Suu Kyi at the official invitation of the Chinese government in the near future. In fact, the question has been repeatedly debated in China since 2012, and a favorable decision is yet to be reached. China’s concern is simple but grave: How will a visit by such a democratic icon affect China’s political and social stability? As the new generation of Chinese leaders battles corruption, injustice and the people’s rising discontent at home, Suu Kyi might inspire more ideas and actions among the grumbling Chinese public. In addition, her status as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate will remind everyone inside and outside of China that her fellow laureates, the Dalai Lama in exile and Liu Xiaobo in jail, are still China’s “enemies of state.” Beijing will not easily extend an invitation to her until it finds satisfactory answers to these difficult questions.

China also raises some major questions for Suu Kyi. As she tries to revise the Constitution and become eligible for the presidency in 2015, China is not a force she wants to antagonize, given the level of Chinese influence inside Burma. How and at what cost she can appease China without undermining her position at home remains to be seen. Her support of the continuation of the Letpadaung copper mine has upset many local residents and Burmese opinion leaders, testing the limits of her charm.

Therefore, it will be prudent for Suu Kyi to carefully calibrate her position on a variety of issues—not only on Sino-Burmese bilateral relations but also on China itself—before making any commitment to visit. After all, she is not just any Burmese politician, and it is only reasonable for people to expect more.