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Shi Yongming
A Continued Friendship
China welcomes Myanmar's State Counsellor
By Shi Yongming | NO.35 SEPTEMBER 1, 2016

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with the visiting Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in Beijing on August 19 (XINHUA)

Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi paid an official visit to China between August 17 and 21. Though Htin Kyaw has been the nation's president since March this year, Suu Kyi—who is barred from becoming president by Myanmar's constitution—is the leader in all but name.

During her stay in Beijing, she met with many Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. The two sides exchanged views on a range of issues and reached a consensus on their continued friendship as well as promoting cooperation. In a joint statement released by the two governments on August 20, both sides pledged to prioritize developing bilateral ties, ushering in a new phase of China-Myanmar relations.

Last June, as the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Suu Kyi paid a visit to China. Five months later, she led the NLD to a majority victory in Myanmar's historic election in November 2015.

Suu Kyi was appointed state counsellor, a special post set for her in the new regime. In contrast with her last visit, she came to Beijing this August as an official member of Myanmar's new government.

Some media reports have claimed that her choice to visit Beijing ahead of Washington implies a diplomatic win for the former and a defeat for the latter. That assumption is largely inappropriate as it ignores Suu Kyi's position—she is first and foremost a patriot, tasked with creating a prosperous Myanmar, rather than turning the nation into a foreign power's strategic pawn in regional affairs.

Therefore, Myanmar's foreign policy must be centered on its national interests. The new government has to pursue a balanced multilateral foreign policy while trying to gain more international support for its economic development.

The reason Suu Kyi chose China as one of her first overseas visits is not complex. Having visited Beijing in June last year, she had promised to visit again after taking office. China is a key economic and regional partner of the country.

Domestic reconciliation

Suu Kyi and her ruling party now face two paramount challenges in national governance. One is how to establish a set of rules for promoting economic development; the other one is how to realize national reconciliation between the Bamar majority group and the many ethnic minority groups, thus helping to restore peace and stability to the country.

Since 1988, when the State Law and Order Restoration Council staged a coup and took control of the nation, Myanmar's military junta should have adopted a neo-authoritarian approach akin to South Korea or Singapore. With political stability, the government could have laid a foundation for economic development and industrialization. However, poor governance combined with economic sanctions imposed from the West left Myanmar struggling for a quarter of a century, as it missed a golden opportunity to reap the benefits of rapid economic growth across East Asia.

Today, Myanmar is partaking in a political democracy. Although Washington remains reserved to some point, it has lifted sanctions on Myanmar by and large. Consequently, there is a huge influx of foreign investment. In the last two years, Myanmar has ranked among the top in economic growth among Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Following the growth, however, problems have emerged. The nation's debt remains significant. According to the mid-term debt report released by Myanmar's Finance Ministry on August 12, by the end of 2015, government debt totaled $19 billion, seriously affecting the state's ability to issue new debt and thus develop the economy.

Myanmar also has a considerable trade deficit which has reached $1.519 billion, while its trade volume has been shrinking so far in 2016. According to Myanmar's Ministry of Commerce, since the new government took office in April, the country's trade volume was $8 billion, a decrease of up to $750 million compared with the same period last year.

There is also a major infrastructure shortage that has greatly restricted the country's development, with electric power seriously short on supply. Under such circumstances, Myanmar not only needs foreign assistance, but also to learn from successful development processes in other countries. This is one of the key reasons why the new government attaches such importance to its relations with China.

Furthermore, some armed forces from ethnic minorities in Myanmar's border areas have posed a threat to the country's development. Since the new constitution was issued in 2011, the government's army and ethnic minorities' militias have been locked in a stalemate of combat and negotiations. Though, by the end of 2015, the government and some ethnic groups had reached a truce.

Prior to her Beijing visit, Suu Kyi held talks with General Min Aung Hlaing, commander in chief of the state's armed forces, on August 8. They discussed four issues: a potential ceasefire with the Kachin and Shan minorities in north Myanmar; national reconciliation and internal peace; the rule of law and domestic stability, and preparation for the 21st-century Panglong Conference, a national assembly in Myanmar. Suu Kyi seeks national reconciliation by jolting the country's memory of the historic Panglong Conference in 1947 which ensured the unity of Myanmar in striving for independence from British colonial rule. In return, the Panglong Agreement, signed in the same year, endorsed complete autonomy for ethnic minority regions.

Yet the current situation remains complicated. The new government must make efforts to convince minorities that it will eliminate ethnic discrimination and ensure all ethnic groups can enjoy equal rights. Some minority groups in Myanmar share ancestry with the Chinese. Therefore, it is natural for the new government to seek talks with China when dealing with these problems.

Good neighbors

China and Myanmar have both suffered from imperial aggression in recent history. After Myanmar's independence in 1947, the two countries put forward a series of policies aimed at enhancing relations in the 1950s, including a friendship and mutual non-aggression treaty in June 1954, modeled on the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence, a momentous agreement reached between China, India and Myanmar. In spite of an ever-evolving international situation, China and Myanmar have mostly sought cooperation and common development.

For decades, Myanmar could not escape its political quagmire. During the period of military government, Myanmar was isolated by the West, while China adhered to a policy of noninterference, maintaining good neighborly relations. Thus, the West accused China of supporting the military government and attempted to provoke dissention between China and Myanmar's democratic parties.

In reality, China played a constructive role in mediating a truce between the government forces and various militias in the northern part of the country, laying a solid foundation for sustaining good neighborly relations. Myanmar was able to achieve a relatively smooth transformation from a military to a civilian government with minimal social unrest last year. The development of economic ties between China and Myanmar also offers an opportunity to boost growth.

In the future, China and Myanmar must be far-sighted on bilateral ties and be mindful of disturbances from other countries.

During her visit to Beijing, Suu Kyi said Myanmar's new government has decided to set up an investigation committee to find a solution that is in both countries' interests regarding the Myitsone dam project. The project is jointly funded by the two countries, but was suspended by the former Myanmar Government in 2011 due to Western pressure, resulting in heavy losses for Chinese investors.

It is natural to analyze that Suu Kyi's Beijing trip as a healthy indicator of bilateral relations between the two countries. The visit is a promising start for long-term stability in a new and exciting chapter for both countries.

The author is an associate researcher of Asia-Pacific issues, China Institute of International Studies

Copyedited by Dominic James Madar

Comments to liuyunyun@bjreview.com

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