BEIJING: Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Thursday met with China’s premier, discussing a stalled dam project and the prospect of building a bridge near the countries’ troubled joint-border.
Suu Kyi’s first major foreign trip since her administration took power in March showed “the Myanmar government and you yourself pay great attention to China-Myanmar ties”, Li Keqiang said at the start of talks in Beijing, adding: “China approves of this”.
Myanmar sees its giant neighbor — and largest trading partner — as its biggest foreign policy preoccupation.
Unfreezing the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam — stalled since 2011 — is a priority for China, while officials said Suu Kyi was seeking Beijing’s cooperation for peace talks with armed groups operating near the countries’ shared border.
Beijing was instrumental in shielding Myanmar’s former junta rulers from international opprobrium while Suu Kyi, now State Counselor, 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 — originally designed to supply most of its electricity to China — in a surprise move after local protests.
Both the dam and border peace talks were discussed by the two leaders, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin told reporters.
But he indicated that there had been no breakthroughs, merely an assurance from Suu Kyi that she would “set up an investigation committee to appropriately solve” the dam issue.
Li and Suu Kyi oversaw the signing of an agreement to study the feasibility of building a bridge in Kunlong, 32 km (20 miles) from the border in Myanmar’s Kokang region where an ethnic Chinese rebel group has recently fought Myanmar’s military.
As well as Li, Suu Kyi is due to hold talks with China’s President Xi Jinping and visit the province of Yunnan bordering her country during the five-day 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 criticizing 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 $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 has seen residents flee into China, and shells occasionally landing on its territory, straining relations.
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 portrayed the current trip as a sign that Myanmar’s ties with Beijing remain 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.