Burma’s strongest ally is looking to “open a new page” with the military-ruled country when Chinese premier Wen Jiabao tomorrow arrives in Naypyidaw to mark 60 years of diplomatic relations.
China’s ambassador to Burma, Ye Dabo, told Xinhua news agency today that the two governments are due to sign a series of agreements to boost already burgeoning bilateral trade, which reached $US264 million in February this year alone.
He added that the two countries “share a long history of friendly exchanges”, and in recent decades have “supported each other in resisting foreign invasion and fighting for national independence and liberation”.
In an article he wrote for the Beijing Review last week, Dabo said that Burma’s ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) “has unswervingly upheld the one-China principle and opposed so-called ‘Taiwan independence’ secessionist activities”.
He added that “China has always been ready to support Myanmar [Burma] in efforts to safeguard its state sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as its legitimate rights”.
That mantra has become the cornerstone of the Burmese regime’s almost xenophobic rhetoric that in recent years has seen it refuse emergency aid, shun visiting senior diplomats and aggressively strengthen its military power. The government spends 40 percent of its annual budget on the military, and has a standing army of close to 500,000, despite having no external enemy.
China’s growing influence over Burma, and indeed the whole of Southeast Asia, has worried the US, which is also contending with the prospect of a new military nexus emerging between Burma and North Korea, with Beijing a silent partner.
Burma is looking to shore-up support for its elections this year, which many Western countries have slated as a sham aimed at cementing military rule. China said in a statement made shortly after Burma confirmed it would block international monitors from entering during the polls that elections must remain the sole responsibility of the host country.
But according to Pak K Lee, a China and Burma expert at the University of Kent, “China has reasons to be concerned about the post-election political landscape and stability [in Burma]”.
“The current top leaders, Than Shwe and Maung Aye, will likely step down after the elections, but will not entirely retire. China may want to have a first-hand understanding of the new ‘collective’ leadership and its policy platforms,” he told Reuters.
Furthermore, international sanctions on Burma, aimed at pressuring the junta into democratic reform, have been softened by China’s reach into the country; it is Burma’s third largest foreign investor, and is tapping the vast gas reserves lying off Burma’s western coast.
Ye Dabo wrote in the Beijing Review that “all of these projects have not only become a driving force for Myanmar’s economy, but also created employment opportunities for the Myanmar people. It is mutually beneficial for both sides”.
Rights groups have however urged China to withdraw from gas and hydropower projects that they say are responsible for severe human rights violations, and from which the vast majority of product is sold off to neighbouring countries, despite massive electricity shortages across Burma.