After having paid a highly successful visit to China a few months ago, where she was received with unprecedented courtesy, Aung San Suu Kyi [ASSK] headed to Washington to complete the second leg of her important foreign policy initiatives. The importance of the visit lies in the fact that her unstated strategic objective was to try and "balance" China's over-reaching influence with that of the US and others such as Japan. How far was she successful in achieving her aims?
There is no doubt that President Obama considers the opening to Myanmar as one of his key foreign policy successes during his term of office. In the last few waning months of his Administration the President, it therefore follows, would do all in his power to make ASSK's visit a resounding success. Fortunately, Myanmar is not an issue in the ongoing debate between the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. President Obama not only received her personally in the Oval Office, but more importantly announced that the remaining sanctions against Myanmar would be lifted soon. However for all the bon homie witnessed, the harsh reality of the presence of Chinese power just across the northern Myanmar borders could not be over looked.
Whilst the "carrot" was being shown to ASSK by the Chinese leadership during her visit to Beijing, the "stick" was never far behind. And the "stick" is the powerful United Wa State Army [UWSA], Myanmar's ethnic armed force that controls a large slice of real estate along the Sino-Myanmar border areas. UWSA is an off spring of the old Burma Communist Party and which was supported by the Chinese till 1978. The Chinese have reportedly supplied UWSA with considerable lethal weaponry, that includes Chinese FN-6 portable air defence systems that have been used by Syrian rebels so effectively. It is this that makes the Myanmar army reluctant to take on the Wa army.
ASSK's initiative to hold peace talks with Myanmar's ethnic rebels has not proceeded well so far. Although China sent its special envoy for Asia, Sun Guoxiang to attend the peace talks; yet rumors abound that the UWSA delegation walked out of the peace talks largely at China's behest since they had been designated as "observers". Perhaps the Chinese wished to demonstrate that while ASSK may bask in the diplomatic success of her visit to Washington; China remains the most important player in Myanmar. The Chinese leadership is aware of its past high handed attitude that lead to the cancellation of the Myitsone dam project by the previous military led government of Myanmar. It has moved swiftly to correct this unfavorable image.
The harsh reality is that the US may "pivot" to Asia, but China is there just across the Sino-Myanmar border and that ground realities cannot change. The West and particularly the US would have to do much more, in case they wish to wean away Myanmar from the close embrace of China. Meanwhile, all eyes remain pivoted on what the new US administration does, once it assumes office in January 2017.