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Sunday, 16 December, 2001, 14:35 GMT
Jiang boosts China's Burma link
Most countries boycott trade with Rangoon
By BBC regional analyst Larry Jagan in Bangkok

China's President Jiang Zemin has left Burma after a four day visit aimed at strengthening the economic and strategic ties between the two countries.

During Mr Jiang's trip, several agreements were signed aimed at improving cross-border links and boosting Chinese investment in Burma.

For both Burma and China this has been a very important visit.

"The visit was high on symbolism, with both sides stressing their strong friendship over decades," said a Rangoon-based diplomat. "But in reality Beijing has been concerned to re-establish its strategic relationship."

China has been Burma's closest ally since the army seized power in Rangoon in 1988.

Beijing supplies it with most of its military hardware and training. They are also in reality Burma's most important trading partner, although much of that is unofficial cross-border trade.

Military ties

Over the past year or two, Burma has begun to broaden its group of friends. It has strengthened its relationships with most its South East Asian neighbours, after joining the regional grouping ASEAN four years ago. But Rangoon has also actively sought to increase its contact with former allies like Russia, India and Pakistan.

Diplomats in Rangoon believe there are many within the Burmese military leadership who have become wary of being too dependent on China and this has alarmed Beijing.

"There seems little doubt though," said an Asian diplomat in Rangoon "that the Chinese president's visit has re-established their close relationship."

The visit was high on symbolism, with both sides stressing their strong friendship over decades

Rangoon-based diplomat

Closer military ties were discussed during Mr Jiang's visit, according to sources in Rangoon. But there are no details of these talks. In fact government officials from both countries declined to comment.

There's no doubt the two countries also discussed ways of cutting the flow of illicit drugs from Burma's Golden Triangle.

For some time now the Chinese have been pressing the Burmese authorities to do more to control the Wa - the ethnic group which is responsible for much of Burma's opium production.

"Chinese and Burmese anti-narcotics agents have been exchanging intelligence on who the traffickers are and what routes they are using," said a senior UN official.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin
Chinese President Jiang wants to counter ties with India

"And as a result there's been a substantial increase in the seizures of drugs and the arrest of drug traffickers in the past few months."

Chinese government officials said further collaboration in the fight against drugs was now planned. And the agreement on cross-border security that was signed in Rangoon at the start of the visit will provide the basis for this increased cooperation.

Illicit drugs

UN officials believe Rangoon is more serious than ever in its commitment to fight the drugs trade.

For the first time, Burma has said it will contribute financially to the UN fund for fighting drug trafficking in region.

The Chinese now seem convinced that the Burmese military are sincere in their concern to stamp out the production and distribution of heroin and amphetamines from the Golden Triangle - the area in Burma where the bulk of the country's illicit drugs are grown and manufactured.

There is no doubt that Jiang Zemin's visit marks a further strengthening of the economic and strategic ties between Burma and China

Economic cooperation was also high on the agenda with Jiang Zemin and General Than Shwe signing a number of agreements including ones to increase economic and technical cooperation, and to boost Chinese investment in fisheries and oil production.

Government officials said China was already participating in 12 projects involving more than $100m. Trade between the two countries is around $600m a year. But this is increasing every year.

Burmese government officials said the value of bilateral trade has grown significantly already this year, and as a result of Jiang Zemin, was expected to increase further.

Aung San Suu Kyi addresses supporters outside her house
Burmese opposition leader: Dialogue with military government

Although Chinese officials did not elaborate, Beijing agreed to increase its financial support for infrastructural projects in the coming years.

These include overhauling oil wells and building a new dockyard for repairing ships as well as helping build a major highway that would connect the southern Chinese province of Yunnan with the Indian Ocean through Burma.

Business links

"Beijing sees the development of the poorer southern provinces like Yunnan being tied closely to the development of neighbouring countries, particularly Burma," said an economist working for the World Bank.

Already Chinese business have extensively penetrated northern Burma. Many visitors to the regional capital Mandalay say it's almost like a Chinese colony.

With better infrastructure and more transport links, China hopes it will be able to use Burma as a transit point for export further afield in South Asia, the Middle East and even Europe.

Chinese government officials also said that the Burmese leaders briefed Jiang Zemin during his stay on the political situation in the country.

At present the military government have established a dialogue process with the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Chinese President is reported to have said that "every country must choose a system of government that fits their conditions and circumstances".

This is being seen as China's endorsement of the Burmese military government. But privately many Chinese academics believe the government's main concern is regional stability.

While Beijing may feel that the generals have provided that to date, their worry is whether Burma will become politically unstable in the future.

It is certain that privately Jiang Zemin will have told his counterpart of Beijing's concerns.

But there is no doubt that Jiang Zemin's visit marks a further strengthening of the economic and strategic ties between Burma and China.

See also:

10 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
Burma's military 'supports democracy'
08 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
Peace greats urge Suu Kyi release
07 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
'Free Aung San Suu Kyi'
05 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
Burma's slow road to reform
30 Nov 01 | Business
Burma's economy heads for crisis
27 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
China drug crime soars
19 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Burma talks stalled
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