Suu Kyi’s Mission to China: It’s Complicated

By Aung Zaw 9 June 2015

Politics, as we all know, can make for strange bedfellows. Five years ago, few would have imagined that the Communist Party of China (CPC) would ever invite Burma’s opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, for a diplomatic visit. Alas, it happened.

Suu Kyi, chairwoman of the National League for Democracy (NLD), is set to visit Burma’s behemoth neighbor from June 10 to 14, when she will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, according to a party spokesperson. Beijing’s decision to invite her, during a turbulent time in bilateral relations and in the lead-up to Burma’s general election later this year, was a bold one that is sure to have an impact on the polls.

Suu Kyi, who has long been an icon of democratic ideals in Burma, has kept much of her domestic popularity despite recent criticisms coming from the West. Not only has she retained much of her support, which she accumulated during decades spent mostly under house arrest by the late military regime, but she has also transformed herself into a pragmatic politician.

This very well may be her message to Beijing: If her party wins, she’ll be there to protect their economic and strategic interests in Burma, which has spent recent years courting friends and allies in Western capitals. And Beijing’s message to her? Perhaps this is a hint that China has already placed bets on the election.

While “The Lady,” as Suu Kyi is affectionately known in her home country, is well versed in role-play, it’s not the face of democracy and human rights that Beijing wants to see. On the contrary, it is the influential and popular political figurehead they want. In the view of China’s leadership, why not bring her over for a talk? She has already been to the White House, now she can come to Beijing and meet Obama’s Eastern counterpart.

This is a particularly fraught time in Burma’s relationship with China, and the ruling administration doesn’t seem too bothered. In recent months, conflict in the Kokang Region, which lies on the Sino-Burmese border, has spilled over into Yunnan, leaving several Chinese villagers dead and others injured. The Burma Army has denied responsibility for the stray fire, blaming it instead on ethnic rebels. The Burmese government, it should be said, had also previously accused China of assisting the rebels, who go by the name of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).

In the latest installment of detonation drama along the border, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) last week carried out a live-fire drill along the border, which was widely viewed as a warning signal to the Burmese government. China clearly has hit a rocky patch with its former friend, but the central and most immediate reason for rekindling their relationship is that Beijing wants to counter the growing Western influence next door.

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.

The relationship between Beijing and Naypyidaw—and its chief executive, former military man Thein Sein—has observably soured since the 2011 suspension of the US$3.6 billion China-backed Myitsone hydropower project in northern Burma’s Kachin State. Needless to say, China wants to restart the project as soon as possible. Like it or not, China is still Burma’s largest investor, accounting for about US14.6 billion in cumulative investments—nearly a third of all FDI.

China has invested in just about every sector of Burma’s budding economy, with a particularly strong foothold in hydropower, gas and oil. To make matters more complicated, most of China’s energy investments are located in volatile ethnic states. It is foreseeable that China could lose that advantage to Western majors, if the administration and the population favor them.

Suu Kyi, it seems, is seen as China’s best chance of keeping its stake in Burma. She is bound to be an influential political player before and after elections, and, if properly courted, might be willing to endorse Chinese investments and calm rising anti-China sentiment among the Burmese public. After all, she has already demonstrated to some degree her willingness to appease China. In 2013, she led a commission that gave a green light to the controversial Letpadaung copper mining project, which had been the site of massive land rights demonstrations.

“We have to get along with the neighboring country, whether we like it or not,” Suu Kyi explained to The Guardian amid the ensuing wave of criticism.

It was an odd position to take for someone who was confined to her house for nearly two decades by a brutal military regime that was supported by that very neighbor. China even defended the detention of Suu Kyi and several of her pro-democracy colleagues, viewing it as an issue of internal affairs. It seems that both Suu Kyi and China’s leadership are ready to turn a new leaf. As China’s state-run news agency, Xinua, declared in a June 7 editorial, “China welcomes anyone with friendly intentions and it bears no grudge for past unpleasantness.”

The true motivations will surely soon become clear, but if Suu Kyi wishes to keep the trust and support of the people of Burma, she would be wise to use this opportunity to bring their interests with her and make them known to China’s leadership.