Myanmese State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi arrived in China on Wednesday, her first official visit outside an Asean country since her party came to power in April.
Relations between the two sides had been bumpy since the long-ruling military junta lost power in 2011 and the trip would give leaders on both sides a chance to establish familiarity, analysts said.
Suu Kyi landed in Kunming in Yunnan province, accompanied by a team of officials including ministers for transport and communication, power and energy, and finance. They flew to Beijing where she was today due to meet Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Premier Li Keqiang.
Two issues are expected to dominate talks – the peace process involving Myanmese rebel groups, which have been fighting along the Yunnan border, and the controversial Myitsone Dam project, which China is eyeing as a key supplier of electricity for its power-hungry south.
Last week, Myanmar’s government said it would set up a commission to review several hydropower projects, including Myitsone.
“Suu Kyi has importantly lumped together the review of all Irrawaddy dams by the commission and not just Myitsone,” said David Steinberg, an expert on Myanmar at Georgetown University. “This is important because politically she cannot approve of Myitsone, but she might on other dams, thus mitigating Chinese pressure to some degree.”
Myanmar would seek greater economic investment from China, while Beijing wanted its neighbour to play a role in its “One Belt, One Road” initiative, according to Fan Hongwei, a professor at the School of Southeast Asian Studies in Xiamen University.
“As the two parties and governments remain quite new to each other … [the visit] would be a more direct way for leaders to meet face to face to exchange ideas, which could help increase trust and reduce misunderstanding” in the region, Fan said.
China has angered several members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations by pressing its claims in the disputed South China Sea. Myanmar has so far sought to remain neutral in the disagreement, and analysts said Suu Kyi’s visit did not necessarily presage a change in that stance.
Her trip comes as Myanmar prepares to hold the Panglong Peace Conference on August 31. All the nation’s armed ethnic groups have been invited to meet government negotiators.
China plays a delicate role in the ongoing strife between Myanmar’s government and its ethnic minority groups in northern parts of the nation, especially in the region controlled by ethnic Chinese Kokang on the Yunnan border.
“China is important to the ‘success’ of the planned Panglong Conference but not by Myanmar leaning toward China, but because China could stop Yunnan [elements] illegally supplying munitions,” Steinberg said.