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Aug 17, 2016 | 09:00 GMT

5 mins read

China and Myanmar: Restoring a Damaged Alliance

China and Myanmar: Restoring a Damaged Alliance
(HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

Nine months after its first free elections in over 50 years, Myanmar continues to make strides in opening its economy and introducing political reform. When the ruling National League for Democracy rose to power, many speculated that it would pursue closer ties between Myanmar and the West, whose democratic ideals the party espouses. But a trip to China by the country's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, reflects a more pragmatic foreign policy taking shape under the new administration, one that is careful not to discount the looming presence of Myanmar's northern neighbor. 

Suu Kyi will begin a four-day visit to China on Aug. 17, marking her third trip abroad since taking office in March as Myanmar's state councilor, minister of the president's office and foreign minister. China has received Suu Kyi once before: She visited the country in June 2015 during her time as Myanmar's opposition leader, prior to the general elections that secured her party's victory in November 2015.

Since assuming power, the government led by Suu Kyi and President Htin Kyaw has attracted international attention, in part because of their busy diplomatic schedules. Between the two leaders, Myanmar has held official visits with a long list of countries, including China, Japan and the United States, as well as several European, Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian states. The flurry of meetings will culminate in September with Myanmar's participation in an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit and a trip by Suu Kyi to the United States and U.N. General Assembly. 

The highly visible nature of these visits has given other countries, both in Myanmar's backyard and farther afield, a chance to get a read on the popular new government in Naypyidaw. Myanmar's transition from military to civilian rule has not been easy, and many of the country's one-time partners have been left wondering whether their ties with Naypyidaw are still as strong as they were under the old junta. In a clear effort to address these concerns while meeting her country's immediate needs, Suu Kyi has prioritized Myanmar's ties with neighbors and organizations in the region — namely, China, India, Thailand and ASEAN — over those with larger and more distant powers such as the United States, Japan, Russia and the European Union. In many ways, her itinerary abroad has been carefully crafted to symbolically reinforce these priorities, maintaining a balance in Myanmar's foreign relations as the country tries to shed the vestiges of isolation and navigate its way onto the international stage.

A Troubled Transition

Until recently, though, China continued to view Myanmar's new government with caution. The transitional administration led by Suu Kyi's predecessor, former President Thein Sein, took Sino-Myanmar relations to an all-time low. Naypyidaw suspended several large Chinese investment projects in Myanmar, including the Myitsone dam and the Letpadaung copper mine. The Tatmadaw, Myanmar's military, also launched an offensive along the country's northern border that repeatedly intruded into Chinese territory. Beijing interpreted the operation not only as a threat to its border security but also as a sharp warning to sever its connections with militant groups in the area. The tension that subsequently arose between Beijing and Naypyidaw starkly contrasted with the close relationship the two enjoyed prior to 2011, when China was able to greatly expand its presence in Myanmar.

And so, even though China had anticipated — and in many ways, encouraged — Myanmar's opening, it found many of its most strategic interests in the country threatened under the Thein Sein government. Chinese leaders grew concerned that Naypyidaw would be willing to leverage those interests, including China's energy assets, border security and investment presence, to squeeze more investment and aid from Beijing. Pressure began to mount at home as Chinese citizens urged their government to retaliate against Myanmar, either economically or by supporting the armed ethnic groups on the China-Myanmar border. 

A Necessary Partner

Five years into its transition away from authoritarian rule, Myanmar is undoubtedly a more open and confident nation than it once was. But as it continues to normalize its relationship with the rest of the world, the country's geopolitical imperatives will dictate just how much its policies can change.

At home, two issues will continue to be paramount for the Suu Kyi government: striking a peace deal with the ethnic armies along Myanmar's northern border and developing the country's nascent economy. But there is consensus among Naypyidaw's political elite that neither of these priorities can be achieved without first reaching an understanding with Beijing. In some areas, Myanmar will even need China's help. Given the numerous economic and political tools at Beijing's disposal, not to mention its links to Myanmar's many ethnic groups, China will likely continue to be the foreign actor with the most influence over Myanmar's path to reform for years to come.

Pragmatism Triumphs, for Now

Recognizing this reality, Suu Kyi has tried to show her willingness to empathize with and address China's frustrations. In an attempt to reassure Chinese investors, Naypyidaw has taken steps to reopen the controversial Letpadaung copper mine, in spite of pushback from the surrounding community. Moreover, Myanmar's leaders appear to have made their peace with China's ties to ethnic groups in the border region, accepting (despite their suspicions) that those connections may be driven by provincial and individual interests rather than ill intent. Suu Kyi has also refrained from putting pressure on Beijing by taking a tough stance on democratic and human rights in China, a tactic Chinese leaders frequently view as unfriendly and unacceptable. So far, China seems to have reacted positively to her efforts. It has repeatedly offered support for Myanmar's peace process while reiterating its policy of noninterference and its commitment to invest in the country.

Each of these developments has added to the air of optimism surrounding Suu Kyi's visit to Beijing. At the meeting, the reopening of the Myitsone dam and China's role in Myanmar's peace process will likely top the agenda. Beijing will use the former issue to gauge Suu Kyi's position on Chinese megaprojects in Myanmar, and she will use the latter to invite China to play a more proactive role in her country's security.

For now, China and Myanmar's overlapping interests will give them an opportunity to restore their damaged friendship. But as Myanmar continues to engage with the rest of the international community and diversify its options, Beijing will adjust its expectations of and approach to Naypyidaw in kind, working with Myanmar's different political players as it deems necessary. If they are not careful, their tenuous relationship could stumble before it even finds its footing.

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