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POLITICS: China-Burma Talks a Step Forward in Improving Relations

Mitch Moxley

BEIJING, Jun 4 2010 (IPS) - Relations between China and Burma have been shaky of late – due in large part to border skirmishes in Burma that have frustrated Beijing. But one would not know it from Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s two-day state visit, which ended Friday.

The ruling junta rolled out the red carpet for Wen, going so far as to issue a stamp to honour the visit, the first by a Chinese leader in 16 years. Chinese state media, meanwhile, glossed over any troubles between the two countries, heralding the meeting as “a new page of good-neighbourly and friendly cooperation.”

The visit is part of Wen’s four-nation Asia tour and coincides with the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

While time will tell whether the meeting represents a genuine thaw in relations between the two countries, it does seem to reflect a re-commitment to the mutual beneficial relationship China and Burma have enjoyed for 60 years: China craves Burma’s resource riches, while Burma’s generals depend on aid, arms and at least some diplomatic protection from its neighbour to the north.

Wen met Senior General Than Shwe and other top leaders in the Burmese capital, Naypyidaw, where he signed a series of bilateral agreements – on energy, hydropower projects and aid – on the second day of his visit.

According to state media, Wen told Than Shwe that the meeting had already improved relations between the two countries. The two leaders “reached consensus on many issues and signed a lot of major deals, which marks another step forward,” Jiang Yu, a foreign ministry spokesperson, said at a news conference in Beijing.

“We are willing to deepen our friendship with Burma and expand cooperation, always acting as a good neighbour, good friend and good partner,” Jiang quoted Wen as saying.

The meeting comes before Burma’s first scheduled elections in 20 years. The elections, which the junta claims will be free and fair, have already been met with wide scepticism in the international community.

Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won the previous election but was prevented by the generals from forming government, has been barred from playing any role this time around. The NLD was dissolved last month after refusing to register as a political party.

China has been under pressure from the West to push for constructive change in Burma, which is officially known as Myanmar. China has a significant interest in a stable Burma and a greater influence over the xenophobic regime than perhaps any other power.

‘The Irrawaddy’, a Thailand-based news magazine run by exiled Burmese, said in a news analysis that Wen would likely advise Than Shwe to make concession in order to add credibility to the elections.

“The Burmese regime faces a crisis of legitimacy,” the magazine said. “Beijing’s task will be undoubtedly more palatable when standing up for an elected government rather than a rogue military state – much the same as when China protects North Korea on the world stage.”

But Zhang Xizhen, a professor at Peking University’s School of International Studies, said Wen and Than Shwe likely focused on economic concerns and border stability, veering away from politics. “What kind of political change happens in one country is its own internal affairs,” he said. “China has no right to interfere.”

Two-way trade between the two neighbours reached 2.9 billion U.S. dollars in 2009, according to official figures, making China Burma’s second biggest trading partner after Thailand. With investments totalling 1.8 billion dollars as of January this year, China is the third largest investor in Burma, after Thailand and Singapore.

But recent troubles along the Burma-China border have soured relations between the two neighbours. Last August, the Burmese army attacked rebels from the ethically Chinese Kokang minority group, forcing some 37,000 refugees to flood into China’s Yunnan province and prompting a rare admonishment from Beijing.

China continues to be concerned about more unrest in the border region. These concerns were made apparent with the recent deployment of 5,000 People’s Liberation Army troops along China’s southwestern border with Burma, according to reports by ‘The Irrawaddy.’

Border skirmishes only worsened what was already becoming a strained relationship. For many years, China backed Burmese communists in their armed struggle with the government, and many of Burma’s current leaders once fought against the communists. Today, many Burmese view China as a pillager of resources. China, meanwhile, has grown increasingly frustrated with the lack of political reform in Burma.

Xu Liping, a researcher at the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, which is part of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, noted that the impact of Wen’s visit to Burma should not be overblown, but instead should be considered an indication of longstanding diplomatic relations.

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