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With Suu Kyi and China, It’s Complicated

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In less than two years, Burma will have its first presidential election since the political reform. Whether opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will be eligible for the presidency remains unknown. However, president or not, she will continue to be a key political force shaping the country’s future. For China, after two years of policy adjustments to cope with the new reality in Burma, the question of how to clearly define and properly handle relations with the Nobel Peace Prize laureate has become increasingly urgent. In the most immediate term, whether and how to invite her for a formal official visit is a key issue that needs an answer.

China has not had the smoothest relationship with the democratic icon since 1990. That year, the Chinese Embassy in Burma initially accepted the results of the multi-party elections and allegedly sent a letter of congratulations to Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which won by a landslide. This response was harshly criticized by Burma’s military government, which rejected the election results. The incident affected bilateral ties, encouraging China to pull its ambassador out of Rangoon from mid-1990 until July 1991.

The lesson was so serious that in order to preempt a similar situation, China left the ambassador position open during the November 2010 elections. Ambassador Ye Dabo went back to Beijing in September 2010, while his successor Li Junhua did not arrive in Burma until late December. During this period, the embassy in Rangoon carefully minimized contact with Suu Kyi and the NLD out of considerations for the military government’s sensitivity. As a result, Chinese diplomats, officials, scholars and businesses had almost no relationship with the diplomatic opposition.

The lack of contact was not a major problem before 2011, since the military government made all the calls and was the only actor that China needed to deal with. But with political reform, Suu Kyi has become such a critical political figure in Burma that no one can afford to overlook her. Her party won 43 of 46 parliamentary seats in the 2012 by-elections, while she became chairperson of the rule of law committee of the Lower House in 2012. She also chaired the investigation committee on the Chinese Letpadaung copper mine project.

In dealing with such an important politician, China needs to not only build ties almost from scratch, but also to overcome the harsh feelings that Suu Kyi herself might have, considering China’s long support for the military government that put her under house arrest for 15 years.

The Chinese Embassy in Rangoon has taken some initiative to mend ties starting two years ago. On Dec. 15, 2011, then Chinese ambassador Li Junhua held the first official meeting with Suu Kyi in 20 years. Since then, Chinese diplomats, scholars, journalists and business representatives have frequented the NLD’s headquarter in Rangoon to “normalize” relations with the opposition leader and her party. In April this year, the new Chinese ambassador to Burma, Yang Houlan, visited Suu Kyi within one month of his arrival. In an unprecedented move, he also reportedly attended her birthday reception in June.

In addition, several NLD delegations have been invited by Chinese authorities to visit China, including one delegation of NLD central executive committee members in May and another of NLD youth members in June. The most recent delegation visited Beijing earlier this month at the official invitation of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and met with an array of senior Chinese officials, including the vice foreign minister, chairman of the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, and the vice chair of the International Relations Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

In reciprocity, or simply because she is a politician, Suu Kyi has made some strategic moves that have significantly improved Beijing’s assessment of her and of her potential policy toward China. Under her leadership, the investigation committee of the Letpadaung project approved the continuation of the copper mine, a joint venture between the Burmese government, a Burmese military-backed company and China’s Wanbao company. She spoke publicly about how Burma needs to honor its pre-existing contracts with China, leading to wild imaginations in China about her possible support of the controversial Myitsone dam. She has committed herself and the NLD to developing a good relationship with China, denying that different political systems would hinder such a prospect. These are all perceived to be very “reassuring” for Beijing.

With goodwill from both sides, the natural next step would seem to be a visit by Suu Kyi at the official invitation of the Chinese government in the near future. In fact, the question has been repeatedly debated in China since 2012, and a favorable decision is yet to be reached. China’s concern is simple but grave: How will a visit by such a democratic icon affect China’s political and social stability? As the new generation of Chinese leaders battles corruption, injustice and the people’s rising discontent at home, Suu Kyi might inspire more ideas and actions among the grumbling Chinese public. In addition, her status as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate will remind everyone inside and outside of China that her fellow laureates, the Dalai Lama in exile and Liu Xiaobo in jail, are still China’s “enemies of state.” Beijing will not easily extend an invitation to her until it finds satisfactory answers to these difficult questions.

China also raises some major questions for Suu Kyi. As she tries to revise the Constitution and become eligible for the presidency in 2015, China is not a force she wants to antagonize, given the level of Chinese influence inside Burma. How and at what cost she can appease China without undermining her position at home remains to be seen. Her support of the continuation of the Letpadaung copper mine has upset many local residents and Burmese opinion leaders, testing the limits of her charm.

Therefore, it will be prudent for Suu Kyi to carefully calibrate her position on a variety of issues—not only on Sino-Burmese bilateral relations but also on China itself—before making any commitment to visit. After all, she is not just any Burmese politician, and it is only reasonable for people to expect more.


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13 Responses to With Suu Kyi and China, It’s Complicated

  1. Why can’t the greedy Chinese leave Burma alone for a century or so. Why do they want to meddle so much in Burma’s internal politics. I am sick and tired of these cunning arrogant scheming Chinese. Who do they think they are? Just because they make some cash with the help of Wall Street and silly Americans (not to mention all that stealing and reverse-engineering of Western technology} doesn’t give them a right to bully smaller countries. It’s better to be poor and free than become Chinese slaves and lose sovereignty.

  2. As a politician she would be able to sort it out. China should forget ‘diplomacy with Chinese characteristics’ and be honest in their relationship with its neighbouring countries. Just because it’s big doesn’t mean that a mouse can defeat the elephant. Daw Suu, to allow continuation of the Myitsone project, even on the premise that Burma should honour past commitments, when China herself had never honour treaties the she deemed ‘unequal’it will definitely be an act of appeasement to the Chinese like her predecessors and a sheer betrayal to her people. As for the project, the legitimacy of the party China enter into engagement was questionable at the most and without the consent of the people, the issue is dead in the water. With almost all the rivers been abused by Chinese to the verge of extinction it should be considered a crime for Daw Suu to let the project continue.

  3. Why they want to meddle our internal affairs? They have already put legs in Arakan and meddling domestic affairs of Burma ( Myanmar ). They make many politician under corrupt. There is a wide spread taking that RNDP party leader Dr. Aye Maung taken big amout of money from Chinese government just to distablise the country especially in Arakan region to make favour to hoild ang grap the Muslims’ land.

  4. Author wrote “China’s concern is simple but grave: How will a visit by such a democratic icon affect China’s political and social stability? As the new generation of Chinese leaders battles corruption, injustice and the people’s rising discontent at home, Suu Kyi might inspire more ideas and actions among the grumbling Chinese public. In addition, her status as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate will remind everyone inside and outside of China that her fellow laureates, the Dalai Lama in exile and Liu Xiaobo in jail, are still China’s “enemies of state.” Beijing will not easily extend an invitation to her until it finds satisfactory answers to these difficult questions.”
    I do not agree with above.
    I do not hear the Obama or Putin will visit China for the sake of both interest in each other. In general, China does not want Obama or Putin or Japan S Abe to come to visit China because China thinks those are real or potential threats to China. However, China wants North Korea, all Asia countries , Africa countries, Arab countries, India and Pakistan to come to visit China more to have more strong tie with China. China offers green card to all Hong Kongnese, Macaunese and Taiwanese as well as all oversea Chinese to come to visit more or invest more rather than others initially in the aspects of trust or knowing their own culture and tradition among themselves. Then, China’s success is generous offering green cards to most oversea Chinese(more educated) to come back to invest in China. Above all, China is not worried about DASSK’s democratic affect on China itself. China has been dealing with full democratic Taiwanese for many and many years so inviting DASSK to visit China is not a big deal for China. China is also the first country to congratulate DASSK’s 1990 election victory without any hesitation or second thoughts. Anyway, it means China respects all Burmese at least to gain vote from some Burmese.
    China is now thinking and calculating what is the effect on China if western educated DASSK becomes president of Burma in future. Japanese and US educated former Taiwanese president, Lee Teng-jui ‘s affect was enormous on developing China at their time ( demand of Taiwanese independence , supported by majority of Taiwanese). However, both local and US educated current Taiwanese president Ma Ying Jeou is able to make peace with mainland China again.
    China is also finding the meaning/strategy of politician from DASSK as well.
    China is not in hurry because China has many options ( ie to continue to support Fox than shwe or change to support DASSK or all ethnics or coalition in any kinds of combination). China should count the stability of Burma in the first priority instead of only trying to gaining cheaper all ethnics’ resources in this crucial time. The best is to support both DASSK and all ethnics (more than 60 years suffering) for the sake of all ordinary Burmese as well as all Burmese wishes.
    Al depend on the meaning/strategy of politician from DASSK, particularly to China.

    • Correction:I do not hear the Obama or Japan or Putin will visit China for the sake of both interest in each other. In general, China does not want Obama or Japan S Abe to come to visit China because China thinks those are real or potential threats to China. Putin is a good friend of China to oppose US so China and Putin do not need to invite each other personally to waste their time.

      • Why did Jinping Xi send his daughter to study at Harvard? What about Guagua Bo? Chinese Agricultural University is a much better place to learn the true Revolutionary Spirit of Lei Feng (for ethnic minorities such as Tibetans or Uyghurs or Dai, there is Minzu University, especially designed for you guys) Time for all those hard-working ambitious young Chinese students at corrupt colonialist reactionary American Universities like Harvard, Stanford, MIT, … to go home and fight for the mother land against these Imperialist Paper Tigers from Japan! LOL

        • Dear tocharian
          Mainland Chinese are very keen in illegal copying or pirating technology from others. Therefore Jinpin Xi sends her daughter to legally copy or learn western technology or educations, particularly from USA which is far ahead of other countries. USA and Russia got the high technology (hydrogen bomb and rocket technology)from German scientists near the end of the world war2. China got those Rocket technologies from China/USA graduate in history.

          See below the information that will tell you how China-born, China/US graduate contributed a huge technology for US in history to make US becomes a super-power because of China-born scholar.

          “After World War II he (Qian Xuesen or known as Tsien) served under von Kármán (German) as a consultant to the United States Army Air Forces, and commissioned with the assimilated rank of colonel. Von Kármán and Tsien both were sent by the Army to Germany to investigate the progress of wartime aerodynamics research. Qian investigated research facilities and interviewed German scientists including Wernher von Braun and Rudolph Hermann. Von Kármán wrote of Qian, “At the age of 36, he was an undisputed genius whose work was providing an enormous impetus to advances in high-speed aerodynamics and jet propulsion.” The American journal Aviation Week & Space Technology would name Qian its Person of the Year in 2007, and comment on his interrogation of von Braun, “No one then knew that the father of the future U.S. space program was being quizzed by the father of the future Chinese space program.
          In 1950, United States government accused Qian of having communist sympathies, and he was stripped of his security clearance. Qian then decided to return to China, but instead was detained at Terminal Island near Los Angeles. After spending 5 years under virtual house arrest, Qian was released in 1955, in exchange for the repatriation of American pilots captured during the Korean War.”

          However, USA had not much affects from world war 2 so it becomes to superpower and super-economy easily and readily as well as having the best in education and technology wise. During and after WW2, many rich or the best educated persons fled to green, green grass of USA.

          If war-torn/killer, communist ruler in China wants to catch up USA in high speed in the aspect of prevention from another Japanese (see world war 2 and Nanking massacre by Japanese army) or UK and EU (see historical Opium war from British and EU occupation in Shanghi&HK) military invasion with the help of USA, China has no way to keep ethical and moral characters/principle. Hardworking Chinese does and did any means to copying legally or illegally technology and education from all famous American universities.
          In the aspect of high value of oil ( energy), particularly in military use, oil craving USA was and is hatred by most of the oil productive Arab nations. It might be possible that US can /could buy oil in cheaper prices from Arab nations in history. The same, China can/could buy all Burmese ethnics’ resources and lands from fox than shwe in cheaper price so most Burmese hated and hates Chinese now.

          USA has many naval bases in the Asia so China copies USA to have military bases around its borders such as Tibetan or Uyghurs or Dai. I do not hope that Burma is the next military base for China if fox than shwe continues to de-panglongnization with his 2008 Nargic casual killing right, particularly to all ethnics. Very soon, all ethnics will change their minds to be sided with rich and future giant, China instead of lair fox than shwe’s cruelty and enjoying free-lunch from all ethnics.

        • Dear tocharian
          Below is the another famous Taiwanese scientist(Taiwan and US educated) who claims racial discrimination in US in his case although he is one of scientists to contribute US to become a superpower.
          “Dr. Wen Ho Lee (Chinese: 李文和; pinyin: Lǐ Wénhé; born December 21, 1939) is a Taiwanese American scientist who worked for the University of California at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He created simulations of nuclear explosions for the purposes of scientific inquiry, as well as for improving the safety and reliability of the US nuclear arsenal. A federal grand jury indicted him of stealing secrets about the U.S. nuclear arsenal for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in December 1999.

          After federal investigators were unable to prove these initial accusations, the government conducted a separate investigation and was ultimately only able to charge Lee with improper handling of restricted data, one of the original 59 indictment counts, to which he pleaded guilty as part of a plea settlement. In June 2006, Lee received $1.6 million from the federal government and five media organizations as part of a settlement of a civil suit he had filed against them for leaking his name to the press before any formal charges had been filed against him. Federal judge James A. Parker eventually apologized to Lee for denying him bail and putting him in solitary confinement, and excoriated the government for misconduct and misrepresentations to the court.
          He also charges that his Chinese ethnicity was a primary factor behind his prosecution by the government. As evidence of such racial profiling, he cited cases of several scientists of non-Chinese ancestry who were responsible for similar security transgressions but were able to continue their careers. Former FBI Director Louis Freeh categorically denied these charges.
          Later, President Bill Clinton remarked that he had been “troubled” by the way Lee was treated.[citation needed]”
          From my point of view, if DR lee does not admit one count out of 59, nobody knows what is his fate from solitary confinement upon him in case of long and long and endless investigation from US investigators. Dr Lee retires in USA. If he is not confident for his innocent, he might request to retire in mainland China or Russia for his future.

          • Continue from above:
            DR Lee Wen Ho’s case can be opened anytime in USA if there is a new evidence comes out against him as a spy. It seems to me that Dr Lee might be confident there might be no new evidence to come out against him because DR lee thinks he is not a spy for mainland China.

  5. Congratulations to the Irrawaddy for the first anniversary.
    For me you are the best news source.
    If I may say so please instil a sense of justice and fair play in your reporting.
    Yes DASSK will play a vital role in playing the Chinese card.
    These are issues that will have to be debated by experts every day and night.
    If you are not in the game please be silent.
    Silence is golden when it comes to sensitive matters.
    Like the Irrawaddy said these are the most exciting times in Myanmar.
    Let go of the old way of thinking and look into your inner self.
    What have you done?
    It is the people that matters most.
    But be assured the people will get the Government they deserved.

  6. China has been exploited Arakan situation, especially in the matter of demography change which was designed by RNDP Party leaders. But it was totally fail due to international intervention. Since US President Obama put his feet in the soil of Burma, China is a bit aware of geopolitical situation in Burma ( Myanmar ), so she has to show her eagerness doing business and to continue unfinish projects within Burma ( Myanmar ).

  7. Well, in my point of view, Suu Kyi is a sold out corrupt politician rather than leader of the people. She fail to protect the most vulnerable people she should protect rather than pocket picking, thieving Chinese companies. Why should Burmese people have to honor the deal made by previous regime without the people acknowledgement in the first place? Suu Kyi is a coward to face the truth about Letpadaung copper mine and let the ordinary poor farmers of Burma suffer. There is much to change in Burma from constitution to freedom of speech and land rights, yet all Suu Kyi shouting out loud all the time is clause 59f of the constitution. How about the whole chapter of legitimizing military as the class of ruler of the country and the rest as to be ruled? Isn’t it the constitution create a ruling class and corrupt the whole system? We do not care or want any Chinese investment over suffering of our poor ordinary people. Our resources should not be sell out cheaply before we can develop ourselves. Why do we need Chinese when so many develop countries such as Japan, European Union, India, North American Countries and many South East Asia countries want to invest in Burma if the country has strong Rule of Law and participation of people in country affair? China may be rising economy, but China economy is still much smaller than US or EU countries combine together or combination of Japan and South East Asia Countries together. Burmese people should know where is their strength and their weakness. Chinese investment should be at the most bottom of the list to be consider. Chinese want to be friend with Burma only because Burma will make Chinese pocket fat, plain and simple. There is no mutual benefit from Burmese Chinese relationship.

  8. @Miss Yun or Yun Xiaojie,On your own terms ,it would be right there is complication bet. China and Burma ,in fact before Suu Kyi became politician..Because we dont believe in Marxism-Leninism ,one child policy and other stuffs.The idealogy of China and ours are so different.
    We want democracy that is the power of yielding on the Government but your democracy is the yielding power to the people by the Communist Party.The so called CCP _China Communist Party has slogans….intensify its vitality,dominance and influence .
    Regarding all the resolutions at UN on Burma made by China was history.Public has witnessed all the aids with strings attached.Since suspending the Myitsone Dam Project China’s behavior became odd with Burma.In fact ,the Irrawaddy River where the dam is going to build is the place where we were born.Thatis where we Burmese from and also that is where our spirits live.We treasure it very much.
    Another thing is affinity or natural liking.China seems to forget to educate her citizens how to behave in international environment.They seem to have problems in Hong Kong,Japan,Burma ,
    philippines and elsewhere.It is a sad thing to say that we could not get along with them.Those people seemed to be arrogant and destroy the image of China.The so called..GUIZI..Devil is very often heard among Chinese.
    We are neighbors..minds are a little similar..all likes straight
    talking.Neighbor should respect each other..help with sincerity.We dont want to see that our neighbor has so many enemies.If China change
    or amend your behavior the other people will change.
    Suu Kyi’s visit is nothing to do with the worry China has.That is the chinese people will lose faith in CCP and the country is swerving in different direction.
    Burmese greetings for close friends is ..Have you eaten? Chinese has the same culture..Chi fan le ma?
    One day we might have a chance to invite your president Xi Jinping..Xi Tongzi or Comarade Xi to Burma.Our farmers are ready to show our agricultural produces such as our corns ,sesemes,and different kinds of beans that are put in each glass jars like a rural
    American farming family in Iowa State .did a year ago on his presidential visit to USA.

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