Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to China last month created a frenzy of global media interest. The big question was about the apparent contradiction between her defiant resistance to this country’s former military regime and the repressive policies of China’s government.
Many wondered whether Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would comment on sensitive human rights issues under the noses of her Communist hosts. The long-term imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo, a fellow Nobel laureate, had some speculating that Myanmar’s icon of democracy would wade into China’s difficult domestic politics.
Yet the point of this visit was something else entirely: showcasing the overwhelming pragmatism of both sides. Whatever Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s misgivings about China’s internal management, she has become far too savvy a political operator to let that interfere with her changing stature on the global stage.
In the lead-up to this year’s election she is being courted aggressively by almost everyone, and it is understandable that the Chinese have sought to charm her into their embrace. The visit programs for such figures are always handled carefully to minimise the possibility of surprises.
But it is surprising that one of the conclusions from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s first China visit is about estrangement. Some have even sounded the death knell for strong relations between China and Myanmar. Surely this is premature.
Relations between the two countries will never be simple. With more than 2 million Chinese citizens and former Chinese citizens living in Myanmar, there is much at stake for both sides. Billions of dollars from China have been invested in Myanmar’s cities, and in the country’s transport, mining and energy infrastructure.
This means that when we start to look for fragility in relations between the two countries we need to begin by comparing it closely with other situations.
The fact is that no other country has China’s firm reach into almost all corners of Myanmar society.
That’s not all: No other country comes close in terms of cultural, economic or strategic heft, and no others have committed so heavily to securing their own Myanmar interests.
This is why Daw Aung San Suu Kyu’s visit to China matters so much. After this year’s highly anticipated election, there is every reason to expect that the Chinese will quickly adjust to any new political arrangements. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s familiarisation tour is one example of what that means.
Her visit to China also fits a pattern that we saw a few years ago. When President U Thein Sein, Pyidaungsu Hluttaw Speaker Thura U Shwe Mann and so many other senior figures from the former State Peace and Development Council began their foreign forays in the early reform years, they did so with the goal of better understanding the complexities of the global order.
When they travelled to Europe and the United States I expect the learning went in all directions. Certainly the Myanmar delegations had a chance to see New York, Paris and London with their own eyes, and to better understand the context in which opposition to their military regime had flourished.
Those foreign politicians, officials and journalists who interacted with them could also test their prejudices about Myanmar’s former military men. In such a hesitant process it will always take time for new appreciations to emerge.
In the same way, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s Beijing foray will have helped to allay some basic concerns, and bolstered the chance for Chinese influence to be maintained if the National League for Democracy ever controls Nay Pyi Taw’s levers of power.
Being wooed by the Chinese government will also give her a renewed sense that her old allies in the Western democracies are only one part of the story. For now, Myanmar, no matter who is in government, will be grappling with the need to broaden and deepen all of its foreign relations.
While there is anxiety about the Chinese role in the Kokang conflict, and their meddling in other areas, there remains an understanding that the two countries need to work together closely.
The alternative could be a return to the fraught relations of decades past. People in Myanmar have not forgotten how the Chinese government exported Communist rebellion beyond its southern border right up to the 1980s.
That rebellion still echoes across the mountains where its remnants seek to extract what they can from the ongoing peace negotiations.
Given that traumatic history, if Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is to lead Myanmar successfully she has no choice about whether to do business with China. The bottom line is that China is not surrendering its influence in Myanmar any time soon, and to pretend otherwise is to miss a momentous geostrategic frontline of the decades to come.
This is a story with global ramifications that goes far beyond the lightning rod of human rights concerns. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will need to be on her toes as she learns to manage such delicate relations.
Nicholas Farrelly is director of the Australian National University’s Myanmar Research Centre. This column was published by The Myanmar Times on Monday, 6 July 2015