YANGON -- Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi will travel to China to discuss the Rohingya refugee crisis amid growing international criticism, signaling to the West that Naypyitaw is tilting toward Beijing in favor of its hands-off approach.
Myanmar's state counselor will take part in meetings beginning Thursday of political party leaders from around the world, hosted by the Chinese Communist Party, her office said Monday. Though no detailed itinerary was released, Suu Kyi will depart Thursday and stay until Saturday, according to a government source familiar with the plans. This will mark her third trip to China since her government formed in March 2016.
The news came soon after Pope Francis, who has expressed sympathy for the plight of the Rohingya, landed in Yangon. In addition to a Tuesday
meeting with Suu Kyi, the head of the Roman Catholic Church is also slated to speak with Buddhist leaders -- likely urging greater religious tolerance -- before traveling to Bangladesh on Thursday to meet with Rohingya refugees.
More than 600,000 members of the ethnic Muslim minority have fled from Myanmar into neighboring Bangladesh since August, when clashes between Rohingya militants and government security forces prompted a harsh crackdown. The United Nations, the U.S. and Europe, among others, have condemned the military's actions and expressed concern about human rights violations. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said the situation constitutes "ethnic cleansing."
The timing of the trip announcement seems intended to make clear that Myanmar is tilting closer to China.
On the same wavelength
Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an agreement Thursday on repatriation of Rohingya refugees. Issues that emerge between neighboring countries "must be resolved amicably through bilateral negotiations," Naypyitaw said in a statement on the deal, hinting at disapproval of what it sees as foreign meddling.
China, too, holds that the refugee problem is for Myanmar and Bangladesh to solve. In a Nov. 19 meeting with Suu Kyi, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi outlined a three-step plan for resolving the crisis: securing a cease-fire, devising a solution through bilateral talks, and working to alleviate poverty in the area to promote stability. Myanmar agrees with this approach, the Chinese side said.
Beijing considers Myanmar a key part of its Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious plan to build a modern-day Silk Road linking China and Europe. Hopes are high for closer bilateral economic cooperation along the lines of an oil pipeline running from China to the Indian Ocean via Myanmar that began operating this year.
Suu Kyi attended the Belt and Road Forum in May and expressed support for the project. She could sign a deal during the upcoming trip on a China-led project to build a deep-sea port on the Indian Ocean.
Beijing also has a vested interest in its neighbor's stability. Meeting Friday with Myanmar military chief Min Aung Hlaing, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for the two countries to "strengthen strategic communication" and said China hopes to play a constructive role in ensuring security and stability along the border.
Myanmar's cozying up to China worries Japan in particular. Tokyo has assisted the country's economic development through the building of the Thilawa industrial zone and Yangon urban development. Japan has also kept a distance from the West, which has pushed for tougher diplomatic pressure, arguing that only Myanmar's self-effort could bring about a true resolution.
The U.S. and Europe, too, still support the government of Suu Kyi, who promoted democratization for decades in Myanmar, and hope for continued progress toward democracy and an open economy. The tricky Rohingya issue -- a humanitarian crisis with a geopolitical element -- is growing still more complex.