BEIJING – The visit of Aung San Suu Kyi to Beijing this week illustrates a new willingness among Chinese leaders to engage with opposition figures in other countries, part of a new and more nuanced foreign policy to better protect China’s interests abroad.
The five-day trip is the first to China for the Myanmar pro-democracy icon, who was kept under house arrest for more than seven years by a military junta that maintained close relations with Beijing.
The Nobel Peace laureate arrived in Beijing on Wednesday and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on Thursday, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. Xinhua initially reported the meeting only in English and didn’t say what they discussed.
“That’s quite a big deal if it happens. Usually opposition leaders wouldn’t get to meet the president,” said Kerry Brown, a former British diplomat and expert in Chinese politics at the University of Sydney.
China, which professes a policy of noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries, has traditionally shied away from public meetings with opposition political leaders. But beginning with a surprise invitation to representatives of the Libyan opposition in 2011, China has arranged visits for opposition leaders from Syria, Japan and Taiwan. In a 2011 visit to Thailand, when he was vice president, Chinese leader Xi Jinping paid a call on Thai opposition head Abhisit Vejjajiva.
The shift reflects Mr. Xi’s desire to make China a more active player internationally, analysts say, as well as an accumulating sense in Beijing that the old foreign policy wasn’t flexible enough to adequately protect China’s growing interests abroad.
“This is a massive breakthrough for China’s foreign relations. In the past, for example in Myanmar, [the party] would only interact with ruling parties and governments–we didn’t dare have dealings with opposition parties or opposition figures,” said Qu Jianwen, an associate professor of international relations at Yunnan University in southwestern China. “Both as a major power and as a neighboring country, we need comprehensive diplomacy.”
The visit is a chance for China’s leaders to get a closer look at a globally celebrated figure in a key neighboring country where China’s own influence is waning. Conversely, developing a relationship with Chinese leaders could help Ms. Suu Kyi paint herself as a pragmatist rather than a political symbol.
But there is risk on both sides. Ms. Suu Kyi could embarrass Beijing by raising sensitive human-rights cases. Meanwhile, she could alienate supporters back home if she is seen as too cozy with Chinese leaders.
Her party, the NLD, is poised to do well when Myanmar votes in its first free election in 25 years this fall. A clause in the Myanmar constitution which prevents anyone with foreign family members from assuming the presidency will likely keep Ms. Suu Kyi—who has two sons with her late husband, a Briton—from the top post.
She nevertheless stands to wield considerable influence if her party dominates the polls, according to Sun Yun, an expert in Myanmar-China relations at the Stimson Center in Washington.
‘From the Chinese perspective, not having a relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi is a problem.’
“From the Chinese perspective, not having a relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi is a problem,” Ms. Sun said. “They need to figure out if she’s going to do damage to China’s interests in Myanmar, or whether she’s going to be conducive.”
Chinese activists have been lobbying for her to ask for the release of Liu Xiaobo, a dissident Chinese writer who, like her, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while incarcerated.
China’s Foreign Ministry quashed any hope Mr. Liu might be released while fielding questions about Ms. Suu Kyi’s trip at a regular news briefing on Thursday. “There is no reason to alter a decision made by China’s judiciary based on law,” said ministry spokesman Hong Lei. He said China hoped the visit would deepen trust and understanding between the NLD and the Communist Party.
Beijing’s once-strong relationship with Myanmar has deteriorated since the junta was replaced by a reformist government in 2011. The U.S., Japan and other countries have swooped in to cooperate with the new government, establishing a foothold in a country China considers its backyard. Meanwhile, anger related to China-funded infrastructure projects and Beijing’s association with the military have fueled anti-China sentiment among regular people in Myanmar.
A particular sore spot is the $3.6-billion China-funded Myitsone Dam in Myanmar’s minority-dominated Kachin state, which was suddenly suspended amid violent local opposition in 2011. Ms. Suu Kyi was one of several dissents who cast doubt on the project, saying the environmental and social costs were too high.
Coverage of Ms. Suu Kyi’s visit in official Chinese media has been muted. On Tuesday, the state-run China News Service described her as the “Flower of Myanmar,” an apparent reference to her habit of wearing flowers in her hair. In a commentary published before she arrived, Xinhua noted that the China-Myanmar relationship had “witnessed some disturbances,” but added that China welcomes visitors with friendly intentions and “bears no grudge for past unpleasantness.”
For Ms. Suu Kyi’s part, analysts say, the visit will require her to strike a delicate balance, according to Richard Horsey, an independent political analyst in Myanmar.
“Too much conciliation with China would play negatively domestically,” Mr. Horsey said, adding that Ms. Suu Kyi needs to ensure that she is perceived as putting Myanmar’s interests first. The NLD leader courted controversy this year by backing a committee that recommended that construction resume on a controversial China-funded copper mine in central Myanmar.
China is still the largest foreign investor in Myanmar, accounting for around 30% of total foreign direct investment in the country. But since suspension of the Myitsone Dam project, new Chinese direct investment in Myanmar has fallen by more than 90%, to $516 million in the fiscal year ending March from $8.2 billion in 2011.
—Shibani Mahtani and Olivia Geng contributed to this article.
Write to Josh Chin at firstname.lastname@example.org
Corrections & Amplifications
Aung San Suu Kyi arrived in Beijing on Wednesday. A previous version of this article said she arrived Thursday.
Source: Google Top News New Nuance in Beijing: Suu Kyi Hopes to Meet Xi – Wall Street Journal