A balancing act for Suu Kyi as ‘fraternal friendship’ with China echoes beyond borders

Cary Huang says the democracy advocate has made a statement by choosing Beijing for her first major foreign destination as de facto Myanmar leader, as she seeks to weigh idealist ideology and practical national interest

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 August, 2016, 12:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 August, 2016, 6:39pm

Theoretically, nothing is more divided than the ideology between pro-democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi and China’s authoritarian government.

Thus, a democratic Myanmar may be naturally moving closer to the West and farther away from China’s communist regime, which put Suu Kyi’s fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) in jail.

For a long time, Washington has isolated the military regime and supported pro-democracy forces led by Suu Kyi, while Beijing has steadfastly stood by Myanmar’s military junta and rejected any pro-democracy forces, fearful of a spillover of ideas across the border.

Given her status as one of the world’s most revered human rights and democracy campaigners, the rise to power of Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy(NLD) bodes ill for China’s leaders.

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However, national interest and pragmatism have always prevailed in diplomacy. And the world is now closely watching how Suu Kyi navigates great power politics and balances her idealist ideology with practical national interest.

Suu Kyi, human rights activist and opposition leader turned de facto state leader, is firstly tasked with the responsibility of governing a country. Many observers believe Myanmar’s China policy is at a critical juncture as the NLD government is faced with the challenge of striking a balance between two diverse policies. It could choose to cater to anti-China sentiment at home and implement a pro-West policy, at the risk of losing Beijing’s support for critical domestic economic development and the peace process. Or, it could try to build friendly relations with the communist giant, but at the risk of losing critical political support at home and in the free world.

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However, Suu Kyi’s interaction with Chinese leaders during her five-day visit, which ended on Sunday, suggests Myanmar is tilting towards giving priority to its relations with China, as leaders on both sides emphasised the traditionally “fraternal friendship” between them. That is what lies behind Suu Kyi’s choice of Beijing instead of Washington as the destination for her first major foreign visit.

China’s capital and technology are crucial for Myanmar’s development, and its financial aid and political support for the Myanmar peace process have increased substantially. China is also more willing than before to bet on Suu Kyi and has been showing increasing willingness to engage the new government. Beijing has also learned how to build diverse relations with different political forces in the country, and will give priority to improving ties with the new government.

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However, many challenges lie ahead. These include a resolution of the Myitsone dam impasse, and the peaceful settlement of ethnic strife in Myanmar’s borderlands. Myanmar is also caught between China and fellow Association of Southeast Asian Nation members involved in the escalating territorial dispute in the South China Sea. The stakes are very high.

As Suu Kyi seeks Beijing’s help, she also faces China’s demand to resume projects unpopular within her country and Myanmar’s support for its stance in the South China Sea.

China has never been as keen as it is now to strengthen ties with Myanmar, amid deteriorating relations with almost all major regional players, as Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and many in the 10-member Asean are all stepping up military cooperation with the US in an effort to hold an assertive China in check.

So China-Myanmar relations are not simply bilateral, they will also have significant implications for the development of security and geopolitics in the world’s economically most dynamic but politically fragile region, amid escalating rivalry for influence and supremacy between the world’s sole superpower and a rising one.

Cary Huang is a senior writer at the Post