Visiting Beijing, Suu Kyi seeks to mend relations

Visiting Beijing, Suu Kyi seeks to mend relations

Visit offers a potent signal that Myanmar's foreign policy will be more friendly towards China

Visiting Beijing, Suu Kyi seeks to mend relations
BEIJING — Hillary Clinton considers her a friend. President Barack Obama has invited her to the White House next month. But on her first visit to a major capital since becoming leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi chose a different destination: Beijing.

With her arrival here late on Wednesday, Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner credited with pushing Myanmar from a military dictatorship toward democracy, offered a potent signal that her foreign policy would be more friendly toward China, which is eager to strengthen its foothold in the country.

Her move risks unsettling Washington, however, since the Obama administration considers the democratic changes in Myanmar that brought Suu Kyi to power one of its major foreign policy victories in Asia. “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has long expressed her desire for friendly relations with China, and it’s not insignificant that she has chosen to travel to Beijing before any other major capital,” said Thant Myint-U, author of  “Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia.” He added: “The Chinese, whatever wariness they may have had, definitely sense the possibility of improved relations and will go all-out to make this visit a success. This will be a historic visit that could well shape Sino-Myanmar relations for many years to come.” China’s red-carpet welcome contrasts with how Suu Kyi was treated when she was Myanmar’s opposition leader.

 Last year, she was 20 minutes late for a meeting with President Xi Jinping, who reportedly told her that she was the first person ever to have kept him waiting so long. Now, China is making amends for that reprimand as it pushes to install itself as the foremost power in Myanmar. It is tailoring investment projects to suit the impoverished country and assuming an influential position as mediator in peace talks between rival ethnic groups and the government this month.

It is also hoping to restart the $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam project, which was suspended in 2011 and is a major source of friction between the two countries. China views Myanmar as a strategic asset, so much so that some policymakers see Myanmar’s long shoreline as China’s west coast. Its position close to the Indian Ocean offers a shortcut for oil and gas imports from the Middle East, and its rich mineral deposits and proximity make it a logical part of China’s sphere of influence on the mainland of Southeast Asia.

Even though China recently built oil and gas pipelines from Myanmar’s coast into southern China and has access to the Kyaukpyu port on the Bay of Bengal, trade between the two nations dropped in 2015, and relations cooled during the five-year transition from a military junta, which China backed, to elections last year.

The two sides are seeking to repair the friendship, though Suu Kyi, who has praised the old tradition of a neutral foreign policy, is likely to be vigilant that China is not too overbearing. In the days before her visit, Suu Kyi sought to ease tensions over the suspension of the Chinese-financed Myitsone Dam. After appointing a 20-member commission to review the suspension decision and look at other hydro projects, she can tell China that Myanmar no longer has a closed mind on the project, analysts said. “She needs good relations with China, but were she to approve the dam, she would lose massive internal support among many groups,” said David I Steinberg, distinguished professor emeritus at Georgetown University.

The new panel was a smart way to deflect pressure on her from China as well as her domestic constituency, he said. The commission could decide that the dam — which Suu Kyi resisted as opposition leader because of the environmental impact it would have on the nation’s main artery, the Irrawaddy River — should not be built. But it would most likely consider other projects that would be to China’s liking, Steinberg said.

For its part, Beijing has become more flexible on the dam, opening the way for the easing of tensions, analysts said. Negotiations are underway for Myanmar to pay China if the dam is not built, or to use the money for other projects, officials close to Suu Kyi said. Numbers have already been put on the table, they said, including $800 million in compensation to China if the dam is not built, they said.

In exchange, Suu Kyi has told the Chinese that she wants a series of smaller hydro projects that are less of a threat to the environment and enjoy popular support, her spokesman, U Zaw Htay, said.“In the end, the dam construction could be halted, resumed, adjusted, replaced by another project, or maybe there are other ideas,” said Fan Hongwei, a specialist on Myanmar at Xiamen University.

New trading route

As part of its ambition to secure more access to the Indian Ocean, China has proposed a new trading route — a waterway from the town of Bhamo in northern Myanmar to the Irrawaddy Delta — and this is likely to come up in the talks in Beijing, Myanmar officials said. Derek J Mitchell, the former U S ambassador to Myanmar, said that Washington recognised the country’s urgent need for hard infrastructure and that it had never opposed China’s delivering major infrastructure projects to Myanmar as long as they are transparent, acceptable to the people and environmentally sound, as the new government has indicated.

It would also be preferable if infrastructure that crossed borders connected Myanmar to the wider region and not just to China, Mitchell said. One of Suu Kyi’s major objectives is to seek China’s help as she starts peace talks on conflicts in northern Myanmar between the ethnic groups and the military.

The roiling small wars there have long been a barrier to economic development in the region, and Suu Kyi has scheduled a peacemaking gathering, called the Panglong Conference, for August 31. She has offered China a role as mediator, Myanmar officials involved in the talks said. Two groups in northern Myanmar near the Chinese border — the Kachin and the Wa, who are ethnic Chinese — receive arms from across the border. The Kachin Independence Army and the United Wa State Army, the largest ethnic army in Myanmar, refused to sign a cease-fire agreement last year. At the time, a Burmese government negotiator said China had pressured the two groups along its border not to sign the deal in order to wield more influence over them.

By offering China a key role at the talks, to be held in the capital, Naypyidaw, Suu Kyi is asking China to halt its arms supplies, a Myanmar official involved in the process said. Recent talks with a flurry of top Chinese officials who have visited Myanmar — including the minister of state security, Geng Huichang; the head of the International Department of the Chinese Communist Party, Song Tao; and the foreign minister, Wang Yi — have concentrated on China’s role in the peacemaking, the official said. “China holds many of the keys to ending decades of armed conflict,” Thant Myint-U said. “The question is what the price of increasing dependence on China will be.”

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