Myanmar’s opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi expects warm ties with China if it wins a parliamentary election this month, good news for its northern neighbor which has seen its influence wane amid tensions with the current government.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy bears China no ill will, said Win Htein, a member of the party’s central executive committee. That’s despite China’s support for many years for a junta that refused to recognize the NLD’s landslide election victory in 1990 and imprisoned party leaders. Win Htein cited Suu Kyi’s trip this year to Beijing to meet President Xi Jinping as evidence of the party’s likely approach.
“One main objective is to become friendly with a neighbor because you cannot choose your neighbor,” he said in an Oct. 12 interview in Yangon. “If you are a neighbor you must be friendly, otherwise it will not be beneficial to both sides,” he said. “That’s why she chooses to be friendly with China.”
The NLD faces an uphill battle on Nov. 8 as it seeks to take control of the country from the military and its allies in its first general election since 1990. Even if it wins every seat up for grabs, the military will keep its veto power over major changes as it is guaranteed 25 percent of seats under the 2008 constitution that also bars Suu Kyi from becoming president.
If it doesn’t secure 51 percent of seats it’ll have to look to smaller ethnic parties to form a coalition government. No matter who wins, the next government faces the challenge of forging stronger ties with Western governments while avoiding alienating China further. Asia’s biggest economy is Myanmar’s largest trading partner, with total trade valued at $25.9 billion in 2014, dwarfing the U.S. on $194 million.
“We need to explain to China that it does not need to worry about Western assistance in Myanmar,” said Kyaw Lin Oo, a political analyst in Yangon. “Development of China’s landlocked provinces depends a lot on Myanmar,” he said. “Their interests are quite big in Myanmar. So we shouldn’t make a mistake in our foreign policy.”
Ties have been tested since the 2010 election boycotted by Suu Kyi’s party, when a quasi-civilian government was installed and sought to lessen dependence on Beijing. Myanmar opened its doors more to the West, fostering ties with countries like the U.S. amid an influx of investment.
President Thein Sein, a general in the former junta who helms the Union Solidarity and Development Party, has halted joint projects such as the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam, though China has financed construction of gas and oil pipelines that link Yunnan province to the Bay of Bengal and will reduce shipping times for oil from the Middle East. Myanmar matters to China for both economic and strategic reasons, as the only Southeast Asian nation that shares borders with both China and India and can help China access the Indian Ocean.
Relations were strained in April by a flare-up in fighting between Myanmar’s military and an ethnic Chinese rebel group, with civilians killed by bombs falling on China’s side of the border. While Myanmar later apologized, it called on China to arrest and hand over rebel leaders it accuses of taking refuge across the border.
After the Myitsone dam was put on ice in 2011, China began to reassess its policy toward the country, viewing it as unpredictable and courting Western nations at China’s expense, said Fan Hongwei, an international relations professor at Xiamen University who specializes in Myanmar.
“Beijing revised its approach to a multi-vector one which involves developing relations with various opposition parties, and that culminated in the Aung San Suu Kyi visit to China in June,” Fan said. “Beijing has prepared the ground for developing good ties with whoever will become Myanmar’s next government, as long as it can protect Chinese business interests in the country and maintain stability.”
For Myanmar, the key is finding the right balance with Beijing, said political analyst Kyaw Lin Oo. “Whether it’s the NLD or USDP or a military government, I think we need to establish a fair relationship with China.”