Myanmar’s success depends on having good ties with China
Aung San Suu Kyi’s meeting with Wang Yi is a promising start as the new, democratically elected government is being courted by world powers
Aung San Suu Kyi’s first official duty as Myanmar’s foreign minister after her National League for Democracy took government was fittingly to meet her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi (王毅). No country is as economically important to the newly democratic nation as China, nor as significant for its development. For Beijing, there are also strategic, security and cultural reasons to be quick to ensure good relations. It is in the interests of both that the pragmatism on show throughout the visit remains a mainstay of ties.
Wang spoke of brotherly friendship and Suu Kyi emphasised that a good relationship with China was critical for Myanmar. These were not hollow words: there are too many matters of mutual interest and benefit for the nations to be on anything but the best of terms. Yet this was not always the case during half a century of military rule and uncertainties remain on key issues that the new government has to negotiate. An opportunity has arisen to start with a clean slate and resolve those matters so that strong ties can be built.
Relations have been especially bumpy in recent years. Ethnic conflicts have spilled over their 2,200km border, leading to illegal logging, outflows of refugees in Yunnan (雲南) and on one occasion last year, Chinese being killed when Myanmar’s military mistakenly bombed their village. Chinese infrastructure projects have also run into public opposition from people who have been displaced or feel disadvantaged. Decisions will have to be made on the suspended US$3.6 billion Matson dam, development of the Kyaukphyu special economic zone and a series of “One Belt, One Road” projects.
Suu Kyi’s supposed close ties to Western governments that supported her struggle for democracy are of concern for Beijing. US President Barack Obama has been especially friendly, furthering speculation that his policy of pivoting to Asia is in part about encircling China. Companies from America and its top Asian ally, Japan, have been especially active since economic reforms were implemented, prompting worries about preferential treatment. The military’s continuing influence, through constitutionally controlling the key portfolios of defence, border security and home affairs, furthers the uncertainty.
Suu Kyi’s remarks and actions during the meeting with Wang and her trip to Beijing last year point to an understanding of the need for a friendly policy towards China. Myanmar’s foreign policy has to be based on fairness and transparency. But the relationship, being so special, requires particular care and attention.