Banking on China against sanctions

Prime Minister of Maynmar Gen Soe Win has returned from Beijing claiming relations between the two countries have now entered a new era. Despite that upbeat assessment, Beijing remains concerned that its Asian ally is potentially unstable and could endanger regional security.

In a press statement released after his arrival in Rangoon Saturday, Soe Win said Beijing strongly supported Rangoon, and would oppose any attempts by the US and Europe to have Myanmar placed on the UN Security Council agenda.

Beijing rolled out the red carpet for the Myanmar leader during his four-day visit when he met President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and foreign minister Li Zhaoxing. Several significant agreements were also signed, strengthening bilateral economic ties, transfer of technology and increased aviation links. “This visit was crucial for Myanmar’s military leaders who are feeling increasingly isolated and under attack from the international community and growing pressure from its ASEAN neighbours,” according to an analyst in Myanmar, Win Min.

In the face of international sanctions against Myanmar, Rangoon has become dependent on its neighbours for trade and political support. Over the past year, China has emerged as Rangoon’s most important ally, even though there were tensions. Recent deals between Beijing and Rangoon for oil and gas extraction rights in western Myanmar seem to have helped mend some of the problems. A gas pipeline is to be built from the Indian Ocean to China’s south-western Yunnan province.

Myanmar’s military leaders have also been concerned about the role of international aid agencies and NGOs in Myanmar. They recently drew up a new set of guidelines for international organisations and formed a special ministerial committee headed by the minister for planning to oversee their implementation.

Many diplomats in Rangoon believe that one of Soe Win’s main concerns was to seek Chinese financial support to help the military regime overcome its mounting economic difficulties, intensified by the excessively expensive relocation of the country’s administrative and military centre from Rangoon to Pyinmana, some 40 km northwards.

Senior Chinese officials also discussed Myanmar’s political reform during the visit. China has been disturbed by the lack of pro-gress on the junta’s seven-stage roadmap announced in August 2003, by the then PM Gen Khin Nyunt. Beijing was also dismayed by the recent adjournment of the National Convention, which is drawing up a new constitution, until the end of this year. While China believes political reform is an internal matter for the Myanmar regime, they fear that excessive delays in the reconciliation process are only likely to increase instability in Myanmar.

China’s leaders fear that social unrest in Myanmar would dramatically affect their southern provinces. More than 200,000 Chinese migrants have crossed into Myanmar in the past decade, according to Chinese officials. Some Western analysts believe there could be as many as a million Chinese now residing in Myanmar. Most of them are there unofficially. Technical experts, workers and even farmers have migrated across the border in search of work. China’s main strategic concerns are to see Myanmar introduce political reform and boost economic development. — IPS