China fetes new Myanmar president on state visit

Associated Press
Myanmar's President Thein Sein, right, accompanied by Chinese President Hu Jintao, inspects a guard of honor during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Friday, May 27, 2011. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)

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BEIJING (AP) — China bestowed a pomp-filled welcome on Myanmar's president Friday, conferring legitimacy on the country's new, nominally civilian government and ensuring continued Chinese access to its neighbor's natural resources.

The state visit is Thein Sein's first since Myanmar installed its new government in March, underscoring the importance of the countries' ties. He was welcomed by Chinese President Hu Jintao with a formal ceremony inside the Great Hall of the People, followed by talks between the two and their delegations.

Hu and Thein Sein (TANE SANE) then presided over the signing of nine agreements covering cooperation and loans from Chinese state banks to Myanmar for projects including a hydroelectric station and railway.

Thein Sein was prime minister in the long-ruling military junta that called elections in November — supposedly to usher in civilian rule. Critics say the vote was rigged in favor of Thein Sein's army-backed political party to perpetuate military dominance. Former junta officers largely make up the Parliament and Cabinet of the new government.

China, with its juggernaut economy, need for raw materials and desire for stable borders, has been a lifeline for Myanmar, offering trade and investment and overlooking human rights violations and corruption.

While Western governments and companies stay away, China and its companies have rushed in, building pipelines to bring in gas and oil, extracting timber and filling markets with consumer goods. Two-way trade soared 50 percent last year to $4.44 billion while Chinese investment totals $12 billion, according to Chinese statistics.

China has also increased its influence by furnishing economic support and military aid and by giving diplomatic protection at the United Nations, where Beijing has vetoed resolutions condemning Myanmar's suppression of protests and other civil liberties.

"China's hosting of the visit enhances the legitimacy of the regime and raises the question of whether it is ultimately promoting or undermining efforts toward development and stability in Myanmar," said Huang Jing, an expert on Chinese politics at Singapore National University's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

The prestigious welcome to Thein Sein differs sharply from the cool reception he received earlier this month at a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian States, of which Myanmar is a member. In a mild rebuke, the regional grouping delayed giving Myanmar approval to assume ASEAN's rotating presidency in 2014, making it contingent on continued democratic reforms.

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