Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has visited the country which supported the military junta that kept her, Nobel laureate and darling of the West, under house arrest for over a decade.
Suu Kyi's first visit to China, which wrapped up on Sunday, included meetings with Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. She also met with senior Party officials Wang Jiarui and Liu Jiheng, and there was even a meeting with one of China's top female leaders, Shen Yueyue, vice chair of the National People's Congress Standing Committee and president of the All-China Women's Federation. Beijing was doing its best to impress.
Since her release, Suu Kyi has sailed a shrewd and often tight-lipped political course. She has largely kept quiet on divisive issues such as the Rohingya, often to much criticism. The Lady, as she is known in Myanmar, won't be able to contest the elections due to a clause in the constitution that bars her from running. Yet her party, the National League for Democracy, looks likely to win a large share of the vote, thanks in part to a first-past-the-post voting system weighted in favour of the NLD and ethnic parties. Indeed, if the elections are free and fair, her party could be the powerhouse in parliament. Regardless of her title or position, she will be a key power-broker in post-election Myanmar. Beijing understands that.
Sino-Myanmar relations have been under increased strain in recent years. Unpopular Chinese-led infrastructure projects have provoked large protests, stalled existing investments and scuttled new ones. Ethnic Chinese rebels along the Chinese border in Myanmar have pushed refugees (and stray bombs) into southern Yunnan province. These factors have led to an uptick in anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar. Another source of tension is the resurgence of the drug trade in Myanmar, which is turning Kunming into China's narco-capital.
Of significant concern for Beijing is the repeatedly delayed signing of a nationwide ceasefire agreement in Myanmar. Naypyidaw's negotiators have now moved toward a two-track ceasefire process that leaves out the most active combatant groups fighting in the country's north-east, along China's border and near vital Chinese investments. Beijing's top concern is the fighting around the oil and gas pipelines that feed China's southern development in Yunnan province.
China is Naypyidaw's largest investor; since 1988, Chinese firms have invested US$14.7 billion in Myanmar. And for Beijing, the relationship with Naypyidaw carries future prospects too. For instance, Myanmar's hydropower potential can drive development in the China's southern provinces. And importantly, in the current climate, Myanmar is China's gateway to the Indian Ocean, which somewhat frees Beijing from a far more complicated geography to its east. For Naypyidaw, China is its bank, so heavily invested that other FDI barely touches the sides.
It is highly unusual for opposition leaders to get such treatment in Beijing. For Sino-Myanmar relations, Suu Kyi's visit demonstrates two things: Beijing sees the importance of the Myanmar relationship but, at the same time, frets about growing competition from foreign diplomats lining up to ink new deals in the country. They probably fear that an NLD win could turn Myanmar away from China and further dilute Beijing's influence. For Suu Kyi, new and powerful friends is what she needs right now.
It is therefore not surprising that both actors are keen to take the other's measure. In 2016, if elections prove free, fair and stable, the relationship will need to be one of deep understanding.