Myanmar’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has again proven herself a shrewd political leader as she wraps up her historic five-day visit to China on Sunday.
To start with, Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s state counsellor and de facto leader, timed her visit well. In a deft move, she chose to go to Beijing before she embarks on another major foreign trip to Washington next month, as part of a balancing act between China and the United States.
Both countries are competing for the hearts and minds of the nations that make up Southeast Asia.
Diplomatic observers say Beijing felt reassured by Suu Kyi’s decision to go to China first, which is widely seen as having ensured that her visit would be a diplomatic success even before the country rolled out the red carpet to welcome her.
Analysts say that Suu Kyi made another master stroke of diplomacy when, less than a week before the trip, her National League for Democracy government established a new commission to evaluate the suspended Myitsone dam and other controversial hydropower projects.
The suspension of the Chinese-backed, US$3.6 billion project by her predecessor, Thein Sein, in 2011 over environmental and other concerns has been regarded as a historic turning point in Myanmar’s relationship with China.
Jonathan Chow, a Myanmar specialist at the University of Macau, said establishing the commission likely pleased China, which was keen to see the dam project revived, while allowing Suu Kyi to defer taking any action on the contentious issue for at least three months amid simmering anti-China sentiments in Myanmar.
“Given the nature of decision-making in Myanmar nowadays, none of these major problems will be addressed unless Suu Kyi gives them some attention,” added Vicky Bowman, a former British ambassador to Myanmar. “A bilateral visit is the best way to achieve that, and the sooner it takes place, the better,” she said.
During her meetings with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, she reassured the Chinese leaders that her democratically elected government still valued the deep pauk phaw –“fraternal” in the Myanmese language – friendship between the two countries, which had been underlined by China’s support for Myanmar’s military junta over the past two decades.
Suu Kyi also pledged that Myanmar would “further consolidate and develop” relations based on the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence between the two countries. The principles, stressing mutual respect for sovereignty and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, have been a pillar doctrine of China’s foreign policy and the bedrock of Sino-Myanmese ties since the 1950s, despite some ups and downs over the years.
Observers also noted that Suu Kyi refrained from criticising China over its human rights violations, and maintained a neutral stance on the South China Sea disputes.
In return, Xi promised to “play a constructive role in promoting Myanmar’s peace process”, just days ahead of a key conference between Suu Kyi and armed ethnic groups, many of which reportedly have links to China.
Suu Kyi said in Beijing that peace and unity among different groups was what Myanmar needed the most, Xinhua reported. “Without peace, there can be no sustained development,” Suu Kyi said.
Dr Thant Myint-U, a Burmese historian and the author of Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, said that while Beijing was keen to move beyond both Myitsone and the border conflicts and towards the long-term relationship it always had in mind, Myanmar desperately needed China’s investment to kick-start its economy.
“For Beijing, it’s not just about the big economic projects or a particular aspect of the peace process, it’s about cementing a long-term relationship with its increasingly important southwestern neighbour, one that sits between China and the Indian Ocean,” he said.
With the bulk of the US economic and military sanctions still in place, especially on Myanmese businesses suspected of being linked to or controlled by the powerful military, analysts believe China will remain Myanmar’s biggest investor and trade partner in the years to come.
Over the years, China has invested heavily in the oil and gas sector in Myanmar, with bilateral trade reaching more than US$10 billion last year, state media reported.
But despite signs of warming ties, observers cautioned that difficulties remained.
“The question is what long-term relationship is in Myanmar’s best interest, and what the price will be of moving closer to China at this time,” said Thant, who is the grandson of former secretary general of the United Nations U Thant.
Phuong Nguyen, a Southeast Asian analyst at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said: “Aung San Suu Kyi understands this geopolitical equation. With the remaining US economic sanctions and many Western companies still hesitating to enter Myanmar, her government will still need China’s economic support to create the jobs it has promised.
“But it is a tough balancing act,” she added.