Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to China

The first-ever high-level visit to China this week by Myanmar opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, accompanied by a senior group of her National League for Democracy (NLD) colleagues, is highly significant and will define the nature of future relations between the two countries, whatever the outcome of Myanmar’s elections scheduled for November this year.

The visit has been a long time coming – it is more than four years since Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to the Myanmar parliament for the first time in April 2012, and began playing a direct albeit modest role in national policy-making in Myanmar – and more than three years since the Thein Sein government in Myanmar suspended construction of a large Chinese dam near Myitsone on the Upper Irrawaddy River in September 2011.

This delay reflects both the underlying suspicion that each side probably has for the other, but also reflects the realisation by both parties that Myanmar and China need to manage their ongoing relationship in a pragmatic way, avoiding misunderstandings and unnecessarily provocative behaviours that could jeopardise their now more-important-than ever strategic relationship.

Suu Kyi might not want to see Myanmar remain so dependent on China, but this may not overly concern China: in any “dependent relationship”, there are elements of mutual dependency, which can be more constraining than positive.

Although China and Aung San Suu Kyi do not know each other well, there is a long history of contact between the two. Observers sometimes recall that after the NLD won a sweeping victory in Myanmar’s first democratic elections in 1990, the first foreign ambassador to call to congratulate Suu Kyi was the Chinese Ambassador.

Since Myanmar began its political transition in 2011, there have been a number of contacts between Suu Kyi and the Chinese Embassy, and the Chinese Ambassador made it clear publicly long ago that a visit by Suu Kyi to China would be welcome. In parallel with this, in 2011 China was putting in place a “strategic partnership” with the Thein Sein government, which China presumably wishes to maintain beyond Myanmar’s 2015 elections. China would be aware that NLD supporters are among those protesting against Chinese mining and damming activities in Myanmar, and China may want to know how Suu Kyi and the NLD plan to handle such potentially sensitive questions, when they arise.

Since 2011, however, the nature of China-Myanmar relations has changed considerably. Since early 2014, China has been operating twin oil and gas pipelines between Rakhine State in Myanmar’s northwest and Yunnan Province in China’s southeast. This is by far the most significant strategic commitment China has ever made to a new all-important oil and gas supplies for its rapidly growing economy.

It means that China can no longer afford miscalculations and mistakes in its relations with Myanmar. China will certainly want to protect – diplomatically – these new strategic energy security arrangements, and may want to find out first-hand how Suu Kyi and the NLD view these arrangements. Since the suspension of its Myitsone dam in 2011, China has been busy re-calibrating its relations with Myanmar, even engaging in new “public diplomacy” programs to overcome its negative image in Myanmar, while reaffirming the “strategic partnership” it developed under the previous Myanmar military regime. But, at the same time, China may have been concerned that the re-appearance of the United States, after years of sanctions, might have resulted in Myanmar tilting unnecessarily towards Washington.

For her part, Aung San Suu Kyi will want to reassure the Chinese about their ongoing strategic interests in Myanmar, which are intrinsically and uniquely beneficial for Myanmar. But she will want China’s leaders to assure her that China will not revert to the arrogant style that sometimes characterised its earlier presence in Myanmar, and that China will be more sensitive to the socio-economic impacts of its economic activities in the country.

Above all, she will make it clear that Chinese activities in Myanmar need to be conducted in accordance with high standards of social and economic responsibility, mindful of the myriad problems associated with the development of a large copper mine in central Myanmar now owned by Chinese interests. She will probably also say that in future Myanmar will enjoy good relations with both Beijing and Washington. But none of this should be seen as any hostility towards China on her part; it is really no more than a pragmatic approach.

So this visit to China is not about one side snubbing the other or about walking away from what went on before. Indeed, it should be highly welcome to the Thein Sein government if it means the emergence of a new consensus on the future shape of China-Myanmar relations that can endure occasional differences over troublesome border problems that will inevitably arise. Overall, an improvement in the tone of Myanmar-China relations would be welcome all round.

This could help both sides manage the vexing issues that from time to time surface on the ground, especially in connection with the two “insurgencies” continuing along Myanmar’s long border with China, involving the Kachin and Kokang groups. But it probably remains to be seen whether or not China will obtain much satisfaction, at this point, from Aung San Suu Kyi on Myanmar’s Rohingya problem, which are geographically not far from China’s important oil and gas interests. A clearer idea of what China may expect on Myanmar in this areas may not emerge ahead of the selection of Myanmar’s next president which may not occur until March 2016.

Interestingly, there is not much that the international community can do about these developments other than watch from a distance. Both Myanmar and China will probably seek to reassure other interested countries neither will be changing the longer term strategic orientation of their foreign policies as a result of this visit.

If this is really the case, and if pragmatism continues to guide both China and Myanmar, the international community has little to be worried about. Indeed, some of the more extravagant – and mostly fanciful – speculations about the emergence of stronger ties between China and Myanmar may be put to rest. Not before time!

Trevor Wilson is a visiting fellow at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University.