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How Will Beijing Treat Myanmar’s Symbol of Democracy?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Burmese opposition leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent 15 years under house arrest in Myanmar, is visiting the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing for five days this week, through Sunday. Also courted by Japan and the West, Suu Kyi arrives in Beijing at a time of rising anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar, conflict at the Myanmar-Yunnan border, and a stalling of inbound Chinese investment in infrastructure projects.—The Editors

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Before 2011, a meeting between China’s top leaders and Aung San Suu Kyi was almost unthinkable. Beijing's links were exclusively with the military regime. So how is Beijing likely to treat the leader of Myanmar’s main opposition party? Very well would be my estimation.

First, Chinese leaders wish to build up a personal rapport with Daw Suu. They recognize that, irrespective of the outcome of Myanmar’s 2015 elections, the National League for Democracy will win a majority of the national vote. The expectation is that she will play a major role in Myanmar’s politics even if she does not become the country’s next president, a role that the country’s elite politics prevent her from pursuing because of a constitutional ban on candidates who have been married to foreigners. One possibility is that she might replace speaker Thura Shwe Mann as lower house leader. It would not be politically prudent for China to have an underpowered relationship with the NLD leader.

Second, Chinese leaders appreciate that they may be able to come to rely on Aung San Suu Kyi to back renewed Chinese investment in Myanmar. After the suspension of the Myitsone hydropower project, Chinese investment into Myanmar plummeted. However, it remains in China’s interests to revitalize the economic relationship. At the same time, Chinese leaders know that in the absence of significant Western foreign direct investment, Daw Suu would recognize that Myanmar could benefit from Chinese investments as long as these meet the expected standards of corporate social responsibility. When leading an investigation into the violence used to quell demonstrations surrounding the Letpadaung copper mine run by Chinese mining company Wanbao, she advocated continuing the project. Moreover, China is likely to raise key infrastructure projects such as the railway link between Yunnan and the Bay of Bengal in relation to which a negotiated MoU expired in 2014. China’s leadership would surely also wish to discuss with Daw Suu the prospects for a possible lifting of the suspension on work at Myitsone once a new government is formed in Naypyidaw, the extent of Chinese interests concerning the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone, and Beijing’s various ambitious interregional plans such as BCIM (involving Bangladesh, China, India, and Myanmar) and the larger “One Belt, One Road” initiative.

Third, Chinese leaders are quite aware of the anti-Chinese sentiments currently widely prevalent in Myanmar. China has paid a significant public relations price for its less than fully transparent business deals with the previous military junta. More recently, China’s image has suffered further over the behind-the-scenes roles Chinese actors are alleged or at least perceived to have played in connection with recent conflict along the border in the Kokang Region. Beijing seems eager to dispel the increasing concerns and negativity about China’s intentions. By establishing a relationship with Daw Suu, Chinese leaders may hope they can open up an avenue that will allow them to communicate to Myanmar’s public that China actually means well and is prepared to cooperate with a democratic government on a basis very different from the past.

Any assessment of the visit by Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to China this week should first acknowledge the asymmetrical power differential evident in such a spectacle. The leader of a small opposition party from a southern country that Beijing long has assumed is a dysfunctional vassal state of Yunnan province, should have no significance.

But Burma has changed in the last few years, and China has been uncharacteristically slow to realize the import of this. China has arrogantly, and with deep hubris, assumed Burma’s now nominally-civilian government, with its backing by the military elite whose roots in power stretch back to 1962, would facilitate Beijing’s long-term plans to open trade routes into the Indian Ocean through infrastructure investments, hydropower, oil and gas projects that predominantly benefit China, rubber plantations in Northeast Burma, and unchecked illegal Chinese migration to the north. Major arms sales and military assistance since 1988 have greased the wheels of this relationship.

Isolated by Western sanctions and perceived as a basket case internationally, Burma was thought to be in Beijing’s clutches. But a flawed democratic election in 2010 sparked a process long planned by Burma’s military leaders to advance the presence of a democratic current and fool the West into supporting it, and thus balance the perception of the country’s dependence on China with a new opening to the West. This worked. Burma’s leaders, still supported by the military, have reaped international kudos for their purported but questionable progress on democratic openings. Little real change has been effected, and growing animus over Chinese investments in resource extraction and land use only has fueled anti-Chinese sentiment.

To her credit, Suu Kyi refrained from denouncing Chinese investment in Burma outright after she was released from nearly two-decades of house arrest. She rightly criticized the former military government for agreeing to joint projects with Chinese companies that were unpopular with the general public. Burmese political elites cravenly played into long-simmering anti-Chinese sentiment, especially as the past three years of anti-Muslim violence and hate-speech seized international attention, obscuring growing anti-Chinese resentment fueled by conflict between the Burmese army and the ethnic Kokang Chinese rebels on the northern border. Burmese ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks are agitating this anti-Chinese rhetoric, casting border conflicts as a Chinese-backed invasion.

Suu Kyi’s visit, from Beijing’s perspective, is best characterized as a scramble of correction and hedging bets to secure investment in long-term assurances of China’s interest in Burma. It reflects Beijing’s disturbance with a perceived betrayal by the Burmese military to facilitate Western business interests. The sad reality is that despite widespread popularity, Suu Kyi is constitutionally barred from being president, and the elections of 2015 in Burma cannot guarantee a credible democratic government will be formed in March 2016, because the Burmese military still commands so much legal and effective power.

By courting Suu Kyi, Beijing is cultivating an opposition figure that has no ability to guarantee that it can secure their long-term interests. This visit is an exercise in desperation and self-interest by both parties.