Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is meeting Chinese leaders in Beijing this week to build ties with her country’s giant neighbour.
Meanwhile, China hopes to shore up its declining influence in the South East Asian nation following its recent democratic reforms.
The secluded five-day visit, which started yesterday and includes no scheduled public appearances, gives the Beijing leadership a chance to get to know Suu Kyi at a time when her country has shifted towards Western countries, Japan and other potential investors.
Myanmar’s citizens, now freer to protest, have stalled a Chinese-backed dam and other projects out of environmental concerns, and China is upset about fighting between Myanmar’s military and rebels in the border area.
“There are question marks on both sides as to where that relationship is headed,” said Jurgen Haacke, a political scientist at London School of Economics. “It is useful for (the Chinese leadership) to play the Suu Kyi card to try and have a different approach, a different avenue to get their message across.”
Suu Kyi is an international democracy icon for her long-standing defiance of, and imprisonment at the hands of, an authoritarian military government in Myanmar that was supported at the time by China, which still keeps fellow Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo imprisoned for his calls for democracy.
However, Suu Kyi has maintained since her release in 2010 that her country must maintain friendly relations with China, and the trip demonstrates her determination to accumulate the diplomatic credentials to potentially contest Myanmar’s presidency no matter how it might clash with her past role.
When asked yesterday whether Suu Kyi’s visit might be an occasion for China to release Liu, convicted in 2009 of subversion and sentenced to 11 years in prison, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said no.
“There’s no reason to backpedal on the verdict that has been made by Chinese judicial authorities according to law,” Hong said.
Suu Kyi’s first trip to China is a party-to-party meeting between China’s Communist Party and her opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), which is expected to perform strongly in elections later this year.
She is constitutionally barred from contesting the presidency because of a provision blocking people who have been married to foreigners, but has campaigned for a change that would allow her candidacy.
She will meet President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, NLD spokesman Han Tha Myint said.
Chinese officials have not confirmed which leaders she will meet, nor released details of her itinerary.
In contrast to state visits, such party-to-party visits to China are often kept semi-secret, with little or no media access.
Chinese media now cover Suu Kyi’s party’s events and news conferences, something they rarely did before 2010, said another NLD spokesman, Nyan Win. China began reaching out to the NLD when she became a member of parliament in 2012, he added.
As Myanmar has opened up, citizens have been emboldened to display anti-Chinese sentiment and protest against Chinese-backed projects, succeeding in delaying some of them.
Building of the Myitsone dam – a joint Chinese-Myanmar project on the Irrawaddy River – has been suspended since 2011.
Analysts expect the two sides to discuss controversial joint projects, also including a copper mine that has led to violent crackdowns by the Myanmar government on protesters, including Buddhist monks who were injured by smoke bombs. The sides also are likely to discuss fighting between Myanmar’s military and rebels along the border that occasionally spills into China, and how Suu Kyi sees Myanmar developing.
Qu Jianwen, a Southeast Asian affairs expert at China’s Yunnan University, said Suu Kyi will be able to take “objective and reliable information” back to Myanmar’s people about China’s intentions in their country to counter their negative image of China.
China considers Myanmar strategically important as a gateway to the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal, and wants to secure oil and gas pipelines in its Southeast Asian neighbor.
“In the medium-term, China is likely to remain the largest investor,” said Omar Hamid, London-based head of Asia Pacific Country Risk at IHS, an independent economic consultant.
Meanwhile, Suu Kyi will seek to position herself as a leader who can draw support from both the West and China, Hamid said.