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Asia

Suu Kyi courts friends of Myanmar's military in China

Nobel laureate Suu Kyi has arrived in China. Myanmar's rights icon is now a real politician who wants to have good ties with friends of her country's former junta. China, too, wants to secure its interests in Myanmar.

Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party are on a five-day trip to China. According to the party's spokesman, the opposition leader is scheduled to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. There hasn't been any confirmation of these meetings from the Chinese side.

The visit is significant but also carries a historical burden: Suu Kyi is in a country that thwarted her pro-democracy struggle against Myanmar's military regime for a long time. Beijing also did not support Suu Kyi's demands for sanctions against her country's junta. Her visit, therefore, is a clear sign that she has absorbed the lessons of "realpolitik," says Marco Bünte, a Myanmar expert at Kuala Lumpur's Monash University.

"She knows that apart from keeping good ties with the West, she cannot ignore Myanmar's powerful neighbor, China," Bünte told DW.

Between China and the US

Western sanctions imposed on Myanmar in the 1980s brought the Southeast Asian country closer to the People's Republic of China. However, Christian Becker of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) says that Myanmar was never a Chinese client state. "The country has always been able to pursue an independent political line," he told DW.

Farmers confront riot police at the site of the Letpadaung copper-mine near Monywa in northwestern Myanmar Monday, Dec. 22, 2014 (AP Photo)

Farmers confront riot police at the site of the Letpadaung copper mine near Monywa in northwestern Myanmar

The fact became particularly evident when in 2011 Myanmar embarked on a reform process and initiated a policy of improving ties with the West. Suu Kyi's release from house arrest and the subsequent 2012 elections enabled the US to normalize its ties with Myanmar. Until then, the US and Great Britain were the most vocal critics of Myanmar's junta. In November 2012, US President Barack Obama broke the ice and visited the Southeast Asian country.

"Myanmar has managed to balance its geopolitical interests," said Becker, adding that the country's reorientation has irritated Beijing to some degree.

Increasing tensions

Myanmar's relationship with Beijing worsened due to the reemergence of an ethnic conflict along its border with China in the north that lasted for several months. Tens of thousands of ethnic Chinese residents fled the unrest. In March, Myanmar's aircraft bombed Chinese territory and killed five Chinese citizens. Beijing responded in June with a military exercise on the border.

Irrespective of the border conflict, China continues to be the largest investor in Myanmar. However, China's economic influence in the country is despised by many.

"There is a discontent with Chinese investment in Myanmar. For the country's people, it means land grabbing and to some extent environmental damage," said Bünte.

A Chinese copper mine in Letpadaung is the best example of this economic tension, as it has been targeted several times by the local population. In 2012, a commission was formed under Suu Kyi's chairmanship, which criticized the Chinese mine's practices and inadequate environmental standards, but fell short of passing a judgment to close it down. Suu Kyi has often said it is crucial for Myanmar to comply with international agreements, demonstrate its reliability, and not deter international investors.

China's interests in Myanmar

The new developments in Myanmar have somewhat complicated its ties with China. Bünte believes China now has to make more efforts to protect its interests in the neighboring country. "Myanmar is important for China because of the access to resources and for strategic reasons," he emphasized, adding that Myanmar also provided China a route to the Indian Ocean.

Becker shares this view: "Myanmar is a transit country for China as oil and gas pipelines link the southern Chinese city of Kunming to Myanmar's Sittwe port."

Suu Kyi's visit, therefore, is also a future investment opportunity for Beijing, according to Bünte.

The Myanmar-China pipeline project near Naung Cho, Northern Shan State, Myanmar, on 24 September 201 (Photo: DPA - Bildfunk)

Myanmar is a transit route for China's oil and gas pipelines

"The Chinese leadership expects that Suu Kyi will have more influence in her country after parliamentary elections in November," said Bünte. China wants to know in advance about Suu Kyi's future plans, he added.

Human rights and politics

Becker also says that Suu Kyi's visit is significant for China because of the human rights issue. "She is a rights icon and has chosen to visit the country , despite Western criticism of China's rights situation."

But it remains unclear whether Beijing's strategy is working. Human rights organizations have appealed to Suu Kyi to take up the case of jailed Chinese activist Liu Xiabo in Beijing. It is also yet to be seen whether Suu Kyi will prefer human rights over politics in China.