Myanmar's Suu Kyi in China with dam project on agenda

Aung San Suu Kyi looks on as she and members of the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) attend a meeting in Naypyitaw, Myanmar on August 15.
Aung San Suu Kyi looks on as she and members of the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) attend a meeting in Naypyitaw, Myanmar on August 15. PHOTO: EPA

BEIJING (AFP) - Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi was to meet Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Thursday (Aug 18) in her first major foreign trip since becoming the country's de facto leader, with a suspended Beijing-backed dam project set to dominate talks.

Myanmar sees its giant neighbour - and largest trading partner - as its biggest foreign policy preoccupation.

Resumption of the US$3.6 billion (S$4.8 billion) Myitsone dam will be a priority for China, while Suu Kyi seeks Beijing's cooperation for talks with armed groups operating near the countries' shared border, officials said.

Beijing was instrumental in shielding Myanmar's former junta rulers from international opprobrium while Suu Kyi languished for years under house arrest as a democracy activist.

At the time Myitsone was seen as emblematic of China's economic dominance over Myanmar. In 2011 a quasi-civilian government halted the project in a surprise move after local protests, and Beijing has been pressing for its resumption ever since.

"China definitely will discuss about (Myitsone) as it is their main interest," Kyaw Zeya, DG at Myanmar's ministry of foreign affairs told AFP.

As well as Li, Suu Kyi is due to hold talks with China's President Xi Jinping during her trip, which began Wednesday.

 

On her first visit to China last year, she faced calls to raise the case of her fellow Nobel laureate Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo - sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2009 for circulating a petition calling for democratic reforms - but did not do so.

Beijing staunchly objects to foreign leaders criticising its rights record, and few expect her to do so this time.

Analysts said the choice of China for Suu Kyi's first trip to a major foreign capital shows the relationship is a priority after Myanmar's historic November elections saw a landslide vote to end military domination.

With a total of US$15.4 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.

But the Southeast Asian nation has drawn closer to the US during its transition to civilian rule.

At the same time Myanmar needs to get Beijing onside as it pursues historic peace talks with armed groups who cross over the border into China to find sanctuary and to trade in illicit items.

Fighting in the border region of Kokang between the Myanmar army and local rebels has seen residents flee into China, and shells occasionally landing on its territory, straining relations.

"We are prepared to discuss it (about peace) if they would discuss," Kyaw Zeya added.

Communist-ruled China launched a diplomatic charm offensive after the November elections, dispatching foreign minister Wang Yi for talks with Suu Kyi soon after her party's victory.

China's state-run media sought to portray the current trip as a sign that Myanmar's ties with Beijing are stronger than its links to Washington.

"Contrary to the subjective view that a democratic Myanmar will lean toward the West, Suu Kyi's visit to China carries significant weight," commentator Wang Wenwen wrote in the Global Times newspaper.

Several commentators said Chinese investment was still essential for Myanmar, but signalled that Beijing might be willing to make concessions on dam projects by consulting more with locals.

Researcher Song Qingrun wrote in the China Daily that "China should make sure local residents approve of the location and size of the hydroelectric stations, and the environmental assessments pass public scrutiny."