June 9, 2015 – Aung San Suu Kyi, a key figure in Myanmar’s opposition, is set to embark on a groundbreaking visit to China tomorrow, a gesture of openness from Beijing as it explores diversified channels to boost ties with Myanmar in a changing political environment.
The trip, which lasts from Wednesday to Sunday, is Suu Kyi’s first visit to China. She was officially invited by the Communist Party of China (CPC) as the leader of Myanmar’s National League for Democracy (NLD).
Long-hailed by the West as an icon of democracy, Suu Kyi’s visit highlights Beijing’s pragmatic approach to diplomacy. It is also seen by analysts as a strategic move from China to safeguard ties with its southern neighbor, overcoming domestic political fights in Myanmar.
The Chinese government has not avoided talking about its intentions to improve ties with Myanmar through various channels.
“The CPC has maintained friendly relations with all political parties in Myanmar,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei emphasized at a regular press briefing in Beijing on Tuesday. “We believe this visit will strengthen understanding between the two parties [CPC and NLD] and further the friendly China-Myanmar cooperation.”
Suu Kyi is expected to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, NLD spokesman Nyan Win told media earlier.
However, China has not specified the names, except for confirming that “Party and State leaders of China” will meet the Myanmar delegation, according to Hong on Tuesday.
Local Myanmar media, such as the Myanmar Times, called her visit to China “historic” and said there were “high hopes” for her trip.
“Yes, Suu Kyi is pro-West in ideology given her education, marriage and political background. But her ideology has not and will never be an issue for China,” Zhao Gancheng, a professor of South Asia Studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies said.
“Myanmar’s political environment is going through new changes with her party’s political influence projected to grow in the upcoming elections. This gives China a strong impetus to reach out to her,” Zhao said.
Suu Kyi studied in the UK and her late husband was a British academic, Michael Aris.
Myanmar is scheduled to hold elections in November, where the NLD is expected to gain a majority of seats in the legislature.
Suu Kyi is also seeking to become a presidential candidate, though she is currently barred under the constitution.
Zhu Zhenming, a research fellow at the Yunnan Academy of Southeast Asian and South Asian Studies, said Suu Kyi is clear about the importance of China-Myanmar relations.
“As Myanmar’s northern neighbor, China’s role in Myanmar’s economic growth and security cannot be underestimated. Any politician seeking to lead Myanmar would understand that,” Zhu told the Global Times.
He believes that the CPC’s official invitation to Suu Kyi, a political star hailed by the West, reflects growing confidence, openness and diversity in China’s diplomacy.
“The decision [to invite Suu Kyi] is a strategic one. China wants to see a stable and prosperous Myanmar whose political development can be projected, so that China’s interests in Myanmar can also be preserved. In that sense, China welcomes the democratic development in Myanmar and wants the country to be more united,” Zhu noted.
Suu Kyi’s visit comes a week after the Chinese military began an air-ground live-fire drill near the border with Myanmar.
Conflicts between Myanmar government forces and local ethnic groups have spilled over the border in the past few months, including an incident where five Chinese citizens were killed by bombing from a Myanmar plane in March. Trade across the border suffered.
Hundreds of thousands of people have also fled to China’s Yunnan Province to seek refuge from the conflict.
Analysts, however, said that Suu Kyi’s Beijing visit and the border conflicts are not connected as the visit was “long-planned.”
“China has long-followed the principle of not meddling in other countries’ domestic affairs. The invitation came as Myanmar’s political situation evolves and Suu Kyi is no longer an activist but an opposition leader,” Zhao said.
Analysts projected that the Letpadaung copper mine and the Myitsone dam, both China-invested projects, could be discussed during the visit. Both projects had encountered local protests and are currently suspended.
As chair of a special parliamentary commission on the Letpadaung copper mine, Suu Kyi called for improvements and safeguards to the project, but recommended its resumption. As for the Myitsone dam, Suu Kyi released the “Irrawaddy Appeal” in 2011 calling for protection of the waterway while urging both sides to “reassess” the project, the Myanmar Times reported.
In a commentary released this week, TheNewsOnline said that despite slight twists, both countries wish to hold on to the friendship established in the past decades and as the engine of the regional economy, China is willing to fully support infrastructure construction in the region and welcomes the visit of people with good wishes.