Situated between much larger powers and ruled for decades by a military junta, Myanmar is emerging anew under the de facto leadership of its state counsellor and foreign minister, Aung San Suu Kyi. For many of Myanmar’s neighbours, this transition has relatively few implications for the current balance of power – at least for now. The exception is China, for which Myanmar is an important investment destination both in itself and as an enabler via the China-India-Myanmar corridor. Two factors will be particularly influential for the future of Sino-Myanmar relations under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership: the economic ties that bound the two nations and leveraging Chinese influence to solve Myanmar’s ethnic conflict.
Suu Kyi’s first priority following the NLD’s sweeping and historic victory in November last year was arguably to cement relations with China. This work was clearly underway even before the election, with Suu Kyi accepting an invitation to go to Beijing in July 2015. Its importance was reinforced with another visit in August 2016, a notable first (outside Southeast Asia) in a series of overseas engagements for Suu Kyi. Much of the focus has been on allaying anxiety in Beijing that Myanmar’s normalisation of relations with the West, which began under Thein Sein’s leadership, would lead to a shift in foreign policy by the new government, given the NLD has been historically pro-West.
Suu Kyi’s desire to broaden relations with her north-eastern neighbour may seem surprising given China’s long history of backing the junta: only in 2013 did China deviate from this by inviting NLD delegations into the country. But while Suu Kyi may have historically leaned West, in both political ideology and education, it is difficult for her to look past the ‘logic of geography’ when considering both economic growth and long sought peace. Striving to find a way to end the ethnic conflict that has waged for decades across Myanmar’s northern border is a massive challenge for Myanmar’s new government; China, with its influence over various armed groups, could be a valuable ally.