Call For Increased Military Ties

China is pushing for greater influence as Burma prepares for high-level talks with the US.

theinsein305 Burmese President Thein Sein (C) sits near U.S. President Barack Obama (R) at an ASEAN meeting in Bali, Indonesia, Nov. 19, 2011.

China’s leadership said Monday that it would work to strengthen military ties with Burma ahead of an upcoming visit to Naypyidaw by the top U.S. diplomat.

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, widely tipped as the successor to current President Hu Jintao, told the visiting commander of Burma's armed forces, General Min Aung Hlaing, that relations between the two countries had successfully "endured changes in the international arena."

"I hope the militaries of the two countries, hereon, can continue to strengthen exchanges, deepen cooperation and play an active role in pushing forward the development of comprehensive relations," Xi said, according to a statement posted on the Chinese Foreign Ministry's website.

The push for deepened ties comes ahead of Wednesday’s three-day visit to Burma by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—the first secretary of state to visit the country in 50 years.

The U.S. has made efforts in recent months to increase its presence in Asia as a counterweight to China’s growing economic and military influence in the region.

Earlier this month, U.S. President Barack Obama told leaders at the East Asian Summit meeting in Bali that the U.S. would set up a military base in northern Australia and suggested that China solve its South China Sea disputes at multinational forums rather than through bilateral talks.

Chinese military analysts say the recent push by the U.S. into Asia is meant to contain China.

Obama also told Asian leaders that after “years of darkness, we have seen flashes of progress” in Burma since a nominally civilian government took power in March, with President Thein Sein’s government implementing a number of significant reforms.

He said recent changes suggest “a historic opportunity” to encourage democracy in the formerly military-ruled nation.

During her three-day visit to Burma, Secretary Clinton will travel to Naypyidaw and Rangoon to discuss the implementation of reforms. She will also consult with a group of civil society and ethnic minority leaders to gain their perspectives on developments in the country.

A careful balance

Burma’s government has been carefully weighing advances from both the U.S. and China in recent weeks and has been careful to maintain a balance in its relations with the two countries.

Last week, Burmese Foreign Minister Wanna Maung Lwin told RFA that Burma’s improved ties with the U.S. were unlikely to dampen links with its traditional ally China and that the new government is seeking to improve relations with countries across the globe as part of the country’s new campaign of reform.

On Monday, Nyo Ohn Myint, head of the foreign affairs committee of the exiled National League for Democracy (Liberated Area) in Thailand, told RFA that Burma had likely sent the commander of the armed forces to China as an olive branch following improved relations with the U.S.

"It is likely that President Thein Sein’s government sent Min Aung Hlaing to China to reassure the Chinese government on their relationship,” he said.

“Secondly, the Burmese government still needs China's support, because as human rights abuses and conflict with ethnic armed groups continue in Burma, China is the only country that will stand by it under these conditions."

Pho Than Chaung, spokesperson of the China-based Burma Communist Party—Burma’s oldest existing political party—said China’s recent increase in economic power and influence had drawn Washington’s attention to China’s neighbors in the region.

"Previously, the U.S. didn't care much about who was governing in Burma, but now, it has become of interest to Washington. The visit by Hillary Clinton, I believe, is to establish and normalize the relationship between Burma and the U.S.," he said.

The U.S. withdrew its ambassador to Burma following the former military junta’s crackdown on democracy activists in 1988 and the regime’s failure to honor the results of a 1990 election that saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) win by a landslide.

The two countries maintain relations on the charge d'affaires level.

Appeasing a neighbor

Thein Sein’s reforms have been mostly welcomed by the international community, including easing media controls, legalizing labor unions, and suspending a controversial dam project backed by China—Burma’s greatest economic ally.

But the U.S. and other Western nations that have long-running sanctions on Burma are awaiting signals from prodemocracy leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who was freed from 15 years of house arrest last November following landmark elections, on when to lift the restrictions.

Obama has also sought Aung San Suu Kyi's "ideas and thoughts about the best approach" to encouraging reforms in Burma.

Pho Than Chaung said that in the meantime Burma will likely continue to appease China, despite recent reforms that are broadly seen as concessions to the West.

He noted that the two sides met after Thein Sein announced the halt to the Chinese-backed Myitsone Dam in September, but that no formal announcement was made at the conclusion of talks.

"After the meeting, the Chinese government ended its complaints [over the dam], so we wonder what promise was made by the Burmese,” he said.

“I don't think this is a good kind of silence—the halt cost a lot for the Chinese as they still have to pay their subcontracts for the planned dam. Who knows what the Burmese government provided as compensation?”

Reported by Ingjin Naing for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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