Suu Kyi seeks ′right balance′ in Myanmar′s ties with China and the West | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 19.08.2016
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Suu Kyi seeks 'right balance' in Myanmar's ties with China and the West

Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi is in China to bolster political and economic relations with her country's giant northern neighbor. Analyst Robert Taylor talks to DW about the significance of the visit.

This is Aung San Suu Kyi's first major foreign trip after becoming Myanmar's de facto leader following the victory of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), in last year's elections.

During the course of her five-day visit, she is holding talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, PM Li Keqiang and a host of other senior officials.

The tour has been overshadowed by a stalled multibillion dollar hydroelectric project in northern Myanmar. Plans for the $3.6 billion (3.18 billion euro) Myitsone hydropower project, which was due to be built in the Kachin state, were suspended in 2011 after widespread environmental protests. About 90 percent of the dam's power would have gone to China.

Aung San Suu Kyi also expects Beijing to support peace talks between Myanmar's government and various armed ethnic groups.

Several complex ethnic conflicts simmer across Myanmar's poor and militarized borderlands, hampering efforts to build up the nation's impoverished economy. Some of the groups have ethnic and cultural links to the neighboring Chinese province of Yunnan, and the porous border is notorious for trade in drugs, arms and precious stones.

Großbritannien Politologe Robert Taylor

Taylor: 'Myanmar always wants to have as good relations with China as possible'

In an interview with DW, Myanmar expert Robert Taylor says Myanmar's relations with China have always been a bellwether for Chinese ties with the so-called Third World. "So if China's relations are good with Myanmar, it indicates to the rest of the world that you can do business with the Chinese," he added.

DW: How do you view the evolution of the relationship between Myanmar and China?

Robert Taylor: China was the chief protector of Myanmar's military government until 2011, when Myanmar introduced some political and economic reforms, which led to the formation of a nominally civilian government. Prior to the transition, China had been a major backer of the military junta at the United Nations and other international forums. Beijing was also a major investor in the country.

But when the West indicated that it was open to doing business with Myanmar, the country's government saw an opportunity to get closer to the US and Europe. It resulted in Myanmar turning its back on the Chinese a little bit.

Also Myanmar's military was not very keen on the Chinese, as they were fighting groups that were allegedly supported by the Chinese for years. So they were quite happy to move away from China and toward the West. And the shift occured under the previous government led by President Thein Sein.

How important are the bilateral relations for both China and Myanmar?

They are important for both the countries. For Myanmar, China is strategically very important given its size and role in the region. So Myanmar always wants to have as good relations with China as possible.

From the Chinese point of view, Beijing wants to develop the nation's western provinces such as Yunnan. And a more prosperous Myanmar helps in achieving this goal. Moreover, Myanmar's relations with China have always been a bellwether for Chinese ties with the so-called Third World.

So if China's relations are good with Myanmar, it indicates to the rest of the world that you can do business with the Chinese. It shows that Beijing is not a threat, but rather a cooperator.

Still, both sides have issues such as disagreements over major infrastructure projects. How are they affecting the bilateral partnership?

These issues are all legacies from earlier years. The Myanmar government has stopped a number of projects that were underway. But there's still interest on the part of the Chinese to continue to invest in the country.

Regarding the issue over the stalled Myitsone dam project, I believe it will be quite difficult for Aung San Suu Kyi to reverse the decision made by her predecessor Thein Sein to suspend construction. Politically, it's a hot potato in Myanmar, to allow the Chinese have their way against the interests of the Myanmar people. That's why it will be very difficult for her to overturn this decision.

Nevertheless, she does command a great deal of political clout in the country. This could allow her to push the project forward without incurring much damage politically. Still, it would undermine her credibility to a certain extent.

She continues to assert that contracts have to be respected for foreign, including Chinese, investment to flow into the country. If she takes such a stance on Myitsone, then she could find a way to resolve the impasse.

Both sides also have disagreements in other areas such as over how to tackle Myanmar's myriad ethnic conflicts. Do you think they will bury their differences and agree on a common position over these issues?

That depends on how the Chinese respond to Myanmar's concerns. Much will depend on whether or not the Chinese authorities will be able to crack down on the insurgent groups operating in the border areas. It, however, has to be noted that China is a huge country and that what Beijing wants isn't necessarily what happens in the Yunnan Province.

We need to understand that there are local interests that support and cooperate with the armed groups. Beijing may not necessarily approve the activities of these groups, but so far it hasn't actively done anything against them.

Both Beijing and Naypitaw would like to see all these issues resolved, but whether or not that's possible is another matter.

Have you seen any change in Myanmar's foreign policy since the new government took over last year?

I haven't seen any major change in the country's foreign policy, particularly vis-à-vis China. Myanmar wants to maintain the right balance in its ties with China and the West.

But even though the country has a new government now, many officials working in the foreign ministry have been serving there for years and it ensures continuity in terms of foreign policy.

What do people in Myanmar think of China and Chinese investments in their country?

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It's a mixed picture. On the one hand, Chinese businesses invest massively in Myanmar and their investments create economic opportunities for people. They create jobs and build infrastructure in the country. But on the other hand, they often import Chinese workers, instead of employing locals. This has been a source of tension between the Myanmar people and the Chinese.

Furthermore, unlike before, many Chinese don't see the need to integrate into Burmese society, and this has also strained people-to-people ties between the two communities.

Robert Taylor is one of the leading experts on Myanmar. He has authored several books on the country, including a recent biography on General Ne Win, who ruled Myanmar for years.

The interview was conducted by Rodion Ebbighausen and edited for clarity.

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