Michael Williams
Distinguished Visiting Fellow
The visit of Aung San Suu Kyi marks an important adjustment of a critical regional relationship by both Beijing and Myanmar’s putative next leader.
Aung San Suu Kyi leaves the airport following her arrival in Beijing on 10 June 2015. Photo by Getty Images.Aung San Suu Kyi leaves the airport following her arrival in Beijing on 10 June 2015. Photo by Getty Images.

Since her release from house arrest in November 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner and head of Myanmar’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has travelled the world promoting the cause of democracy and human rights in Myanmar (Burma). In doing so she has spoken in Westminster and in Congress, as well as several other legislatures, where she has received a warm welcome. There are few heads of state or heads of government in the democratic world who she has not met.

So at first glance her current visit to China seems surprising, given China’s decades long political support for the Myanmar military and substantial economic investment in Myanmar, much of it invested in less than transparent deals exploiting the country’s abundant natural resources.  As if to underline past difficulties, Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, spoke candidly of  Beijing welcoming visitors ‘with friendly intentions and bears no grudge for past unpleasantness’.  

The visit is therefore clear recognition by Suu Kyi of the critical importance of China as the most significant power in Asia, and by the Chinese leadership of the imminence of the elections in Myanmar (to be held in November) and the almost certain probability that the National League for Democracy will win. Suu Kyi would like to make sure that whatever the final outcome of the November polls, China will not be part of the problem but, on the contrary, part of the solution.

A significant agenda

The visit has clearly been carefully prepared. It is striking in that respect that Suu Kyi’s visit comes only a month after that of Myanmar’s speaker of parliament General Shwe Mann. The pivotal relationship that has developed over the past two years between Shwe Mann and Aung San Suu Kyi would seem to seal the political outcome in November. Speculation has been rife for some time that Shwe Mann might become president with Suu Kyi and her party dominating parliament. As if to underline that possibility, Suu Kyi has been received at the highest levels in Beijing, almost befitting a head of state or government, rather than the leader of a political party. The visit includes meetings with President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang, as well as visits to Shanghai, China’s economic powerhouse, and the southwestern province of Yunnan, which has a long border with Myanmar. In her visit to Yunnan Chinese leaders will want to emphasize not only its economic progress, compared to minority areas in Myanmar, but also its irritation that refugees from conflicts within Myanmar continue to enter China.

With no more than six months before her country’s elections it will be important for the Myanmar opposition leader to ascertain what might be Beijing’s attitude in the event, as most observers expect, of the NLD winning the election, possibly by a landslide. Difficulties will certainly arise in the possible reaction of the military in being excluded from political power and given that Suu Kyi is presently barred from the post of head of state.

Difficult discussions

There is inevitably awkwardness about the visit. China’s support for Myanmar’s military junta was never greater than during Suu Kyi’s years of house arrest. Suu Kyi has been a lifelong and internationally recognized supporter of democracy and human rights, issues that continue to be sensitive in political dialogue with Beijing. Whatever the manifold shortcomings of Myanmar are, the current government led by President Thein Sein has already made Myanmar  a far more open society than China. Expectations in the Western media that Suu Kyi might speak out on behalf of her fellow Nobel Prize laureate, the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, will almost certainly not be realized.

Myanmar is not alone in Southeast Asia in having had a difficult relationship with China but needing to recognize geopolitical realities. Vietnam fought a war with China in 1979 while Indonesia had no diplomatic relations with Beijing for a quarter of a century after 1965 because of Chinese support for the Indonesian Communist Party – an issue that long overshadowed Myanmar’s relationship with China as well. But like its neighbours Myanmar has to recognize China’s extraordinary economic power and increasingly its political domination of East Asia. Indeed, on occasion Beijing has played a proactive and positive role, as in its mediation in 2013 between the Myanmar government and the Kachins who have been locked in conflict for decades.

For Myanmar and its ASEAN partners the proximity and might of China cannot be ignored. This visit is an acknowledgement that in order to see democratic progress in her country, Aung San Suu Kyi has to ensure that China is at least neutral in the political drama likely to follow the November elections.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback