With Myanmar's military junta facing increasing international isolation, Prime Minister Soe Win heads to China this week expecting to expand ties with his nation's strongest and most loyal ally.
Even as Myanmar's fellow Southeast Asian neighbors show growing signs of unhappiness over the regime's political and human rights records, China has remained solidly behind the generals while looking to broaden trade links.
"We expect that this visit will further expand and deepen the traditional friendship between China and Myanmar," Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Kong Quan (
Kong said the two nations would sign trade agreements during Soe Win's four-day trip, while he is scheduled to receive red carpet treatment during meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao (
However the UN's former envoy to Myanmar, Razali Ismail, called on China to start pressuring the junta to reform.
"China has a critical role to play in the efforts to bring reforms and democracy in Myanmar," said Razali, a Malaysian diplomat who resigned in frustration in December after being denied access to the country for two years. "The Chinese know if they exert the political will, they can get Myanmar back on the track towards reforms. China is extremely close with Myanmar."
China, however, has given no indication it will encourage the junta to reform, with Kong insisting his government will not deviate from its strict policy of not interfering in Myanmar's "internal affairs."
Ralph Cossa, director of the Pacific Forum think tank at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said China's stance had become more important for the junta as other regional governments abandoned them.
For a long time, ASEAN had followed a similar policy of "non-interference" with member Myanmar, but last year demanded it move towards democracy and release opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
"China has become not only an important economic contributor, but also its political protector," Cossa said.
Cossa said this support had become "critical" in multilateral forums, with China lobbying other nations privately and publicly to avoid placing pressure on Myanmar's generals.
"You see the Chinese at every one of these meetings speaking out for Myanmar. No one else is carrying the flag for them. Politically it helps to take some of the heat off Myanmar," he said.
The US said last week it was considering introducing a resolution at the UN Security Council to step up international pressure on Myanmar over rights abuses.
China, a permanent member of the Security Council, would likely veto any such move, with Myanmar so confident of the fact that Soe Win would not even raise the matter this week, a former Thai ambassador to the UN said.
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