Under Xi Jinping, pragmatism now trumps ideology in China's foreign policy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 June, 2015, 11:51pm
UPDATED : Monday, 15 June, 2015, 6:49pm

The thought of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's opposition leader, freedom fighter and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, holding talks with China's top echelons would once have been unlikely. But foreign policy is evolving under President Xi Jinping and there is now a willingness to cooperate and exchange opinions with politicians from other countries, no matter what their ideologies or backgrounds. This is especially so for Myanmar, a neighbour with strategic and economic significance to Beijing. China's expanding growth and influence makes such a pragmatic and nuanced approach a necessity.

Myanmar is a crucial part of Beijing's "One Belt, One Road" initiative and maintaining healthy relations is essential. With elections scheduled towards the end of this year, reaching out to the popular Suu Kyi makes sense. Although it seems likely she will be barred from standing for the presidency due to a controversial clause in the constitution on foreign-born relatives, her National League for Democracy party stands a good chance of becoming a powerful political force in parliament. Being on friendly terms will help with understanding and cooperation.

This has to be especially so given China's circumstances with Myanmar. When the nation's military was firmly in control, ties were strong. But relations have soured since the junta was replaced by a reformist government in 2011. Policies aimed at attracting Western companies have led to a slump in Chinese investment and American, Japanese and European businesses are pouring in. Anti-China sentiment was behind the suspension of the US$3.6 billion Chinese-funded Myitsone dam. Ties have recently been further strained by fighting between Myanmar's military and ethnic rebels that has been spilling into Yunnan province; five people were killed in March during a bombing run on the wrong side of the border by a Myanmese air force jet.

Xi told Suu Kyi during their meeting in Beijing on Thursday that he was confident Myanmar would be "committed to advancing friendly ties, no matter how its domestic situation changes". The opposition leader gave an assurance, especially as "neighbours cannot be selected". This is the pragmatism that is increasingly driving foreign policy under Xi. The shift away from the long-standing approach of non-interference in the affairs of other countries is necessary if China is to protect its interests and play a bigger role on the international stage.