Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi meets China counterpart Wang Yi in foreign minister debut

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left) shakes hands with Myanmar Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi on April 5, 2016.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left) shakes hands with Myanmar Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi on April 5, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

YANGON (AFP) - Myanmar's foreign minister Aung San Suu Kyi met her Chinese counterpart on Tuesday (April 5) in the first diplomatic foray of her new pro-democracy government, underscoring the importance of relations with Beijing.

The nation sees its giant neighbour - and largest trading partner - as its biggest foreign policy preoccupation, with border wars and controversial China-backed mega-projects topping the agenda.

The new civilian administration, sworn in on March 30, faces a host of economic challenges as it inherits the government of the impoverished nation from the military.

It also faces tensions with the military which ruled for almost half a century.

Suu Kyi, for decades the standard-bearer of the democracy movement and now foreign minister, invited China's Wang Yi for talks in the capital Naypyidaw.

At a press conference afterwards she described relations as "very important politically as well as socially and economically".

Wang said his government was eager to "build more confidence" between the nations and vowed that China would support Myanmar's process of national reconciliation.

"China is a good neighbour to Myanmar. We want to improve the relationship between the two countries," he said through an interpreter.

Beijing was once instrumental in shielding Myanmar's former junta from the full force of international opprobrium while Suu Kyi languished for years under house arrest.

Chinese firms enjoyed a host of juicy business deals with Myanmar's generals and their cronies that were often seen as exploiting the nation's rich natural resources.

But the comfortable relationship was thrown into upheaval under the last quasi-civilian government of Thein Sein.

In 2011 he shocked the international community by suspending the multi-billion dollar China-backed Myitsone hydropower project in war-torn Kachin state.

Fighting in the border region of Kokang last year between the Myanmar army and local rebels with links to China also strained relations.

Analysts say both nations want to rebalance the relationship after Myanmar's historic November elections that saw millions of voters take to the polls to end the military's domination.

"The new government recognises China's importance but will also be keen to recalibrate aspects of the two countries' relations," said Nyantha Maw Lin, of advisory firm Vriens and Partners.

With a cumulative total of US$15.4 billion (S$20.9 billion) of approved investments in Myanmar, China is by far its largest foreign investor, despite reforms in recent years that have seen Western firms surge back.

Its interests range from a huge oil and gas pipeline and special economic zone, to dams and mining. Chinese firms have continued to win major contracts in recent months.

The two countries share a long border, along parts of which ethnic minority rebel groups are fighting Myanmar's government. The frontier also sees huge flows of illicit timber, drugs and jade flood north from Myanmar.

Yun Sun from the Stimson Centre's East Asia Programme said discussions were likely to focus on China's role in Myanmar's peace process as well as in its economic development.

Suu Kyi, who met President Xi Jinping during a visit to Beijing last June, has shown a pragmatic streak in dealing with Chinese interests.

But in a rare sign of pushback, a top party economic adviser in March said the incoming government could rethink the Myitsone project despite China's eagerness to see it restarted.

The meeting between Suu Kyi and her Chinese counterpart comes amid growing tension between her party and the military.

Suu Kyi is barred from the presidency by the junta-era constitution. But her National League for Democracy party wants to push a bill through parliament that would give her the vaguely defined new role of state special adviser.

Army MPs, who make up a quarter of the legislature, slammed the bill at a dramatic lower house hearing on Tuesday that saw the uniformed soldiers refuse to vote. They stood in protest when their attempts at amendments were swatted away by the NLD, which holds a majority.

"It is difficult for the military representatives to continue participating if (the bill) is voted through without review," military MP Brigadier General Maung Maung told the chamber.

The bill needs only one more vote in the combined parliament to pass.