China and the World

The Lady arrives

Myanmar looks for new era with China

Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi (L) and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (R) talk during a signing of agreements ceremony in Beijing

Aung San Suu Kyi with Li Keqiang

Last year when Aung San Suu Kyi visited Beijing as the leader of Myanmar’s opposition party, she turned up 20 minutes late for a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

He is said to have remarked it was the longest anyone had ever kept him waiting.

One wonders if it wasn’t a tiny rebuke on Aung San Suu Kyi’s part.

After all China had essentially kept her waiting for years by propping up the military junta in Myanmar and doing little to engage when there were the first signs of change in Burmese domestic politics.

Now, however, Aung San Suu Kyi is Myanmar’s State Counsellor and head of the National League for Democracy, making her the country’s de facto leader. Her most recent trip to Beijing last week was all about repairing ties. She may not like the role that China has played in her country in recent decades but, as she has said on several occasions, the two nations are neighbours and they have to get along.

She is also aware that Beijing is crucial to keeping the peace in her insurgency-riven nation – with several armed Chinese ethnic groups still active across the 2,100-kilometres of shared border.

While Aung San Suu Kyi was in China last week three of these groups turned up and said they would attend an upcoming peace conference in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw that she will convene this month.

The New York Times called it a “gift” to help Myanmar remember China was its “new best friend”.

During her five-day trip to Beijing, Xi’an and Kunming she touched on other issues as well – notably Chinese investment in Myanmar.  Three large projects have either been suspended or allowed to lapse since democratic reforms were introduced in 2010: a copper mine at Letpaduang, a railway from Kyaukpyu on the west coast across the border to Kunming, and a massive dam at the source of the Irrawaddy river at Myitsone.

Work resumed at Letpaduang in May but locals continue to protest that they were not given adequate compensation for the loss of land.

Prior to travelling to China Aung San Suu Kyi set up a commission to rule on the fate of the $3.6 billion dam, which was first put on hold by the former president Thein Sein.

Chinese involvement in Myanmar became increasingly controversial in the junta’s later years as Beijing was thought to be exacting a high price for its support of the isolated, sanctions-hit, government.

Some analysts have suggested that it was this sense that Myanmar was being exploited that pushed the junta to take the road of reform.

The dam at Myitsone is unlikely to be built in its original form because of this legacy, as well as a series of environmental concerns. However, Aung San Suu Kyi did promise that a solution would be found – mostly likely some form of compensation or contracts for other projects.

Others have suggested it would be wise for Beijing to take the dam off the table as a gesture of good will but that didn’t happen during this trip.

Instead there were lots of coded messages in the media. “By visiting China [before the US] Aung San Suu Kyi shows Western democracy is not enough to live off,” Xinhua ventured hopefully. Meanwhile the state-backed Global Times warned that protests against Chinese projects were “irrational” and “harmful to relations with its largest trading partner”.

“The US, the Western media and the foreign NGOs are… using the media to their popular advantage and deliberately ignoring the positive effects of Chinese investment,” warned China.org.

But the New York Times countered that Beijing was hardly acting altruistically when it “nudged” the ethnic groups to join peace talks.

“Once peace comes, China plans to build roads and railways across northern Myanmar to the Bay of Bengal, a short cut to supplement the recently built oil and gas pipelines that would bolster trade from the Middle East by avoiding the South China Sea. China also has other projects in mind to knit Myanmar into its orbit,” it concluded.

As an indicator of her interest in luring future finance from China, Aung San Suu Kyi also met the Chinese president of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Jin Liqun last Friday, the newspaper noted.


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