This week’s visit to China by Aung San Suu Kyi, the state counsellor and foreign minister of Myanmar, conveys one point clearly: China’s leaders are in a full wooing mode, ready to pull all the stops to improve China-Myanmar relations. Suu Kyi is aptly viewed as the de facto head of the Myanmar government. Recognising this, China’s premier, Li Keqiang, played host to her at a ceremonial welcome in the northern lobby of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, marked by military pomp and show.
China’s reasons are clear: it wants to move beyond its engagement with the previous president, Thein Sein, and open a new chapter in bilateral relations. “China is the first country you have visited” outside the ASEAN nations. Li Keqiang told her, “showing the importance the government of Myanmar and you yourself have attached to the bilateral relations.” Suu Kyi was also received by President Xi Jinping with much cordiality, who expressed the hope that her visit would boost “strategic cooperation between our two countries,” urging her to adhere to “the correct direction” so that the relationship brings “tangible benefits to the two peoples.” The joint press release resolved to advance their “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership in the new era.”
Suu Kyi’s visit has shown her willingness to reciprocate; she too has her own reasons. Apart from Beijing, she visited Xi’an and Kunming. Her last visit to China was as opposition leader in June 2015. Those with a long memory might find something strange here. After all, in Myanmar’s epic struggle between the military and the Suu Kyi-led democracy movement, China was the former’s ally and adversary of the pro-democracy camp. But everything changes when one assumes power. While in the opposition, Suu Kyi consistently conveyed that, as the people’s leader, she would manage the complex but vital relationship with China. She now has a valuable opening, especially because former president Thein Sein, who crafted the opening to the West during 2011-16, had consciously decided to curb the excessive dependence on China.
This is where the exceptional focus on the future of the China-sponsored Myitsone Dam project comes into play. A $3.6 billion, mega hydroelectric development project in the Kachin state on the Irrawaddy River, it was finalized in June 2009, with the agreement providing that 90% of the electricity produced would be for China and the remaining 10% for Myanmar. Due to the likely adverse environmental impact and unfair terms, a huge popular furore followed. In a surprise move, Thein Sein suspended the project in 2011. The Chinese were not even informed in advance. This was a major setback to China-Myanmar ties. With the change of government in Naypyitaw in April, Beijing has accelerated efforts to resuscitate the project.
Sensitive to Chinese pressures, the government of Myanmar set up an investigation commission to look anew at all hydro projects including the Myitsone Dam. This was done a week before Suu Kyi’s visit to China. The commission’s report is expected on 11 November. In Beijing, as the Chinese leaders pressed their case, Suu Kyi calmly conveyed that the commission’s report had to be awaited. But a clue to her flexibility was given by Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin who said that Suu Kyi expressed her willingness to look for “a resolution that suits both sides’ interests via both sides’ energy adminstrations’ cooperation.” Apparently, a deal is in the works.
Already the Chinese have provided several sweeteners. Agreements were signed for China’s assistance in constructing a strategic bridge at Kunlong, near the Kokang region on Myanmar’s northeastern border, as well as two large hospitals in Yangon and Mandalay.
More importantly, the Chinese leaders pledged to support Myanmar’s internal stability and promote the Suu Kyi-led initiative for ethnic peace and reconciliation. The 21st century Panglong conference on the subject is scheduled to begin on 31 August, convened by Suu Kyi who considers it her top priority. She has returned with the pledge from Beijing that it would stress moderation on the armed ethnic groups close to China as well as their constructive participation in the historic conference. “We believe,” Suu Kyi stated, “that as a good neighbour, China will do everything possible to promote our peace process.” Unlike any other neighbour or external partner of Myanmar, China is perceived to be capable to help or hurt – or even do both, depending on the responses and decisions by Naypyitaw.
The visit to Beijing has regional implications too. The joint press release stated that Myanmar “welcomed” China’s Belt and Road initiative as well as the initiative of Bangladesh-China-India-Myanamr (BCIM) Economic Corridor. Significantly, the statement is silent on the South China Sea issue – an expected gain for the Chinese side.
The full view of Myanmar’s astute balancing of its external partnerships will come into focus shortly. Suu Kyi is set to visit U.S. in mid-September at the invitation of President Obama. While there, she will no doubt hear about America’s geopolitical concerns in East Asia and may also receive a pledge of support for her endeavours to enhance the quotient of democracy in Myanmar. The US is the only partner in her quest for constitutional reform which is opposed by Myanmar’s generals.
Where, in this regional re-strategizing, is India? On 22 August, immediately after Suu Kyi returns from China, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj will visit Myanmar. This will be the first visit by an Indian cabinet minister to Myanmar since the National League of Democracy (NLD) government began its innings on 1 April 2016. This will be the time to hold a friendly and wide-canvas conversation, including on Suu Kyi’s evolving worldview and India’s place in it. It may be desirable to go beyond routine issues, and discuss the future of India-Myanmar relations set within the strategic contours of a multi-polar East Asia in the coming decade.
This is expected to be followed by two high level India-Myanmar interactions. President Htin Kyaw may visit India later this month to hold discussions with the Indian leadership. Subsequently, Suu Kyi may participate in the BRICS-BIMSTEC outreach summit, to be held in Goa in mid-October. There, she will have her first meeting with the leaders of Russia, South Africa, Brazil, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bhutan, besides meeting the top leaders of India, China and Thailand again.
The making of Aung San Suu Kyi as a regional and global leader has begun. So has, perhaps, a re-alignment in Asia as Myanmar, the last, long-unseen nation of the region, enters the strategic play.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme, Gateway House. He is a former ambassador to Myanmar and author of “India-Myanmar Relations: Changing contours” (Routeldge 2016).
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 Global New Light of Myanmar, Feature, Joint Press Release between the Republic of the Union of Myanmar and the People’s Republic of China, 20 August 2016, <http://www.globalnewlightofmyanmar.com/joint-press-release-between-the-republic-of-the-union-of-myanmar-and-the-peoples-republic-of-china-2/>
 Radio Free Asia, Myanmar, Myanmar’s Panglong Peace Conference to Begin on Aug. 31, 8 August 2016, <http://www.rfa.org/english/news/myanmar/myanmars-panglong-peace-conference-to-begin-on-aug-31-08082016160444.html>