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What to watch out for during Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s first official visit to China

Myanmar’s relations with its powerful neighbour China arrived at a new juncture on Wednesday, as the country’s de facto leader State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi began a visit to Beijing.

The visit to China is Suu Kyi’s first since Myanmar’s new government, led by her National League for Democracy party, came to power in April this year.

China is the first country outside of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to which Myanmar belongs, for Suu Kyi to pay an official visit, highlighting the priority Myanmar is placing on its northern neighbour.

Observers are watching what Suu Kyi may discuss with Chinese president Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang during the five-day trip to Beijing.

Foreign relations

It is widely believed that Suu Kyi would seek to calibrate Myanmar’s policy toward China during the trip, especially when China ranks highly on her domestic agenda in the ethnic peace process and economic development, although some experts believe Suu Kyi and her NLD-led government would try to maintain a balanced policy that favours neither the United States nor China.

Economic relations

Economic relations between China and Myanmar have been bumpy in recent years after Myanmar’s government suspended a long-planned and highly controversial hydroelectric dam project in the face of growing public opposition in 2011. Suu Kyi herself was an activist against the China-invested Myitsone dam.

Economy tipped to dominate Suu Kyi’s first visit to China

China remains the biggest foreign investor in Myanmar and signs have emerged that the new NDL-led government would continue to lean on China economically. One signal came last week when the new government announced it would set up a special commission to review several hydropower projects, including Myitsone, which would also be on the agenda when Suu Kyi meets with Chinese leaders over the next few days, Myanmar’s news portal The Irrawaddy quoted Kyaw Zeya, director general of the Political Department in Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as saying.

Ethnic peace process

Suu Kyi’s visit comes only two weeks before Myanmar is to hold its Panglong Peace Conference on August 31, to which all armed ethnic groups are invited.

China plays an conflicting role in the troubled relations between Myanmar’s national government and ethnic minority groups in northern parts of the nation, especially in the region controlled by ethnic Chinese Kokang on Myanmar’s border area with China’s Yunnan province.

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It is believed Suu Kyi would discuss with Chinese leaders China’s role in the peaceful settlement of ethnic conflicts, and try to persuade China to stop its support for ethnic Chinese groups on the borderlands.

Human rights

Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace laureate, was publicly quiet about human rights issues when she met with Xi last June, which disappointed many of her supporters. Human rights groups have urged her to raise the issue of releasing fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo from Chinese prison during her meeting with Xi.

Additional reporting by Kyodo

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