For the past few years, many in the international community have been practically giddy about the prospects for democratization in Myanmar—probably too optimistic, in our view. Now, with Nobel laureate and Western darling Aung San Suu Kyi effectively running the country, expect the Western NGO officials to get even more enthusiastic. (It’s worth noting that Suu Kyi’s popularity may wane; she made the mistake of showing her uglier side when she complained that a BBC interviewer was Muslim last week.)
The excitement about democratization has often obscured the geopolitical significance of Myanmar’s opening: it allows the United States to wedge itself between the leadership and Beijing. In her new role as foreign minister and “state counselor”, Suu Kyi will be well-positioned to determine the extent of Myanmar’s geopolitical rebalancing. In a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies’ newsletter, Phuong Nguyen lays out (PDF) the stakes for Myanmar and China:
Being the foreign minister gives Aung San Suu Kyi more than a seat on the supreme decision-making National Defense and Security Council. It also gives her a powerful platform on the international stage from which to voice her views on Myanmar’s priorities and national strategy, and shape the outside world’s evolving views of a country still emerging from decades of international isolation and slowly embracing its regional identity as a member of the ASEAN grouping.
Of particular interest to international observers will be how Aung San Suu Kyi will handle Myanmar’s often dif cult relations with China. As one of her rst tests on the job, Aung San Suu Kyi will confront two of the most contentious issues in Myanmar’s foreign relations. One concerns the stalled $3.6 billion Chinese-backed Myitsone dam in northern Myanmar. The other is a $14 billion special economic zone concession recently granted to a Chinese-led consortium; the project is strategically located in western Myanmar overlooking the Bay of Bengal.
Outgoing president Thein Sein decided in 2011 to suspend construction on the controversial dam in response to a public backlash against what many in Myanmar saw as China’s economic exploitation of a then-isolated Myanmar under junta rule. The decision angered Beijing, which opted to subsequently give Thein Sein a cold shoulder and place its bet on the next government. Chinese leaders are believed to have raised the prospect of resuming the Myitsone project with Aung San Suu Kyi when she visited China last year, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reemphasized as recently as March that China hopes to resolve the current impasse with the incoming government.
For China, leaving the Myitsone question unresolved not only hurts its standing and economic interests in Myanmar, but will also set a bad precedent for future Chinese infrastructure investments in the region and potentially dampen the reputation of its planned ambitious One Belt One Road initiative. Aung San Suu Kyi is in a delicate spot; in 2013, she backed a parliamentary decision to allow a Chinese-invested copper mining project in northwestern Myanmar to go ahead despite widespread local opposition over land con icts and environmental concerns. She said this message was necessary to reassure potential investors looking to do business in Myanmar.