During her visit to China from August 17-21, Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s state counsellor and foreign minister, was given a red-carpet welcome. She was virtually treated as the prime minister, for she, in effect, heads the government. She held discussions with the foreign minister, the prime minister and the president of China as well as other political and business leaders. The visit’s outcome indicates that China wants closer relations with its southern neighbour in the future than was the case during President Thein Sein’s tenure.
For Suu Kyi, this was the second visit to China. In June 2015 when she was in Beijing as an opposition MP, she was received by President Xi Jinping. This was an indication enough that China saw her as the future leader. The two sides had begun fashioning a basis for mutual cooperation. China’s efforts to woo her gained momentum after the new government assumed power in Naypyitaw. Within a week, foreign minister Wang Yi visited Myanmar, thus becoming the first foreign dignitary to meet the new leaders, including Suu Kyi. A series of Chinese dignitaries have been to Naypyitaw since then.
During discussions last week in Beijing, a serious exercise was conducted to craft a mutually beneficial “give and take.” As the joint press release points out, the two nations would follow “a strategic and long-term perspective” and are committed “to achieve a new progress in their comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership.”
More specifically, China has conveyed a firm assurance of support for Myanmar’s economic development and national reconciliation. The latter is especially important now, as Suu Kyi prepares to convene the 21st century Panglong conference of all armed ethnic groups. Several of them have close links with the Chinese authorities. China’s assurance implies that these groups may now participate in the forthcoming conference, set to begin on August 31, and try to be more moderate and constructive. In return, Suu Kyi seems to have promised some flexibility on China’s request to revive the Myitsone Dam and hydroelectric development project that had been suspended by the previous president. Reports suggest that a via media could emerge, once the Myanmar government-appointed investigation commission submits its report on November 11. However, notably the press release makes no mention of this project.
What it states on political issues is bound to attract New Delhi’s attention. Myanmar has “welcomed” China’s One Belt, One Road initiative on which South Block has serious reservations. Myanmar has also welcomed the proposed economic corridor connecting Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BCIM). India is no longer excited about this corridor. More significantly, Myanmar has refrained from expressing any views on the most controversial issue facing the region today — the South China Sea issue.
Suu Kyi has extended invitations to the prime minister and the president to visit Myanmar. Neither dignitary has paid a bilateral visit to the country in the past five years, but these visits will resume now.
Implications of the fast-paced improvement in China-Myanmar relations will need to be studied carefully by the Ministry of External Affairs. It is reassuring to note that external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj went to Myanmar on Monday. Despite an appearance to the contrary, there is no direct connection between Suu Kyi’s visit to China and the Indian minister’s visit to Myanmar. (The latter visit was scheduled for May 1, but it had to be postponed due to unavoidable reasons.)
Myanmar’s top dignitaries — President Htin Kyaw and Suu Kyi — are expected to visit India in the coming weeks. Once these visits are over, the picture about the dynamics of the complex China-Myanmar-India triangle may become clearer. One point, however, is already crystal clear: The government, India Inc. and civil society need to work harder on deepening the multi-dimensional ties India enjoys with Myanmar.
Rajiv Bhatia is a distinguished fellow, Gateway House and former ambassador to Myanmar.
The views expressed are personal