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Burma’s president will be joined by top defence officials when he makes his first state visit to China tomorrow, with analysts speculating that difficult questions will be asked of the new leader.
Thein Sein is expected to sign several business agreements in a bid to boost an already strong economic relationship with Beijing. “He’ll probably sign several agreements and maybe visit some industrial sites, as Myanmar’s [Burma] focus now is developing its economy,” Lin Xixing, a Burma expert at Guangzhou’s Jinan University, told Reuters. “China is investing large sums in high-speed rail and road links, as well as pipelines, in Myanmar.”
The trip, which is expected to last three days, is the first bilateral visit he will make since taking office in March. It comes as little surprise that China is the first choice, given the myriad benefits that a strong relationship with the region’s economic and political powerhouse carries.
“The intention behind the visit to China is more than just a traditional procedure – it is to proudly show the international community that Burma is being recognised by powerful international countries such as China,” says Pho Than Chaung, spokesperson for the Burma Communist Party (BCP).
Although outlawed by the Burmese government, the BCP is the oldest political party in Burma, and until the mid-1980s received substantial support from China. This was gradually cut as Beijing developed closer relations with the central government.
China is now the single biggest bilateral investor in Burma, pouring close to $US10 billion into the economy last year alone. That figure almost doubled total investment in Burma in the two decades prior.
Much of the financing has targeted the Shwe dual pipeline project that will carry oil and gas across the breadth of Burma to southern China. The lucrative venture, catalysed with a $US2.4 billion loan from Beijing and which is expected to net the Burmese government some $US30 billion over the coming three decades, is also a potentially vulnerable one, with the pipeline route passing close to rebel-controlled territory in Shan state.
A flare-up between Burmese troops and an ethnic Kokang army in 2009 that pushed more than 30,000 refugees into Yunnan province is still fresh in of minds of Chinese businessmen and policymakers as they eye the security of investments in their southern neighbour.
Thein Sein will be joined in the visit by Defence Minister Hla Min and Burmese army chief Min Aung Hlaing, who earlier this month welcomed the vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, Xu Caihou, to Naypyidaw. Their inclusion signals the emphasis Burma is placing on convinving its powerful ally that security is under control.
Pho Than Chaung thinks that China will urge Thein Sein to pacify the volatile frontier regions, as well as ironing out bureaucratic difficulties for Chinese companies working in Burma.
A number of ethnic armies operate close the lengthy China-Burma border: once stable relations between the Burmese government and two of these – the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Shan State Army-North (SSA-North), which recently cemented an allegiance with the opposition Shan State Army – have dramatically soured in recent months as both refused to accede to demands to transform into border militias faithful to Naypyidaw.
Reports emerged last week that the KIA had put its troops on high alert after the Burmese army deployed extra forces close to its territory, while sporadic bursts of heavy fighting between SSA-North troops and the Burmese army have erupted in the past two months.
Additional reporting by Peter Aung