Burma's leader visits old friends

A member of the Chinese navy's special force on the deck of DDG-171 Haikou destroyer
Image caption China and Burma have developed strong military ties

Burmese leader General Than Shwe is visiting China at a time when the relationship between the two countries appears strong.

Two-way trade is growing and China has invested millions of dollars in a series of infrastructure projects inside Burma.

But the potential for tension remains, particularly along the border that separates the two countries.

There is also the possibility for greater instability, with national elections expected to take place in Burma later this year for the first time in 20 years.

Analysts say that is something Beijing will not want to see.

"China will want to give the message that whatever you do, you need to ensure stability," said Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, a Burma expert at the International Crisis Group, a think tank.

Oil pipeline

China is interested in maintaining good relations with Burma for a series of economic and strategic reasons.

Burma provides an outlet for Chinese manufactured goods.

Two-way trade amounted to $2.9bn (£1.9bn) last year, up by 10% on the previous year, according to Chinese statistics. Most of this is made up of exports from China.

Both sides are looking for that to increase substantially over the coming years.

The Southeast Asian nation is also an important partner in China's attempts to secure energy supplies from both Burma and elsewhere.

Two pipelines - one carrying oil, the other natural gas - are being built from the port of Kyaukpyu on Burma's western coastline.

They will stretch across Burma for about 1,100km before entering China at Ruili, a border city in Yunnan, the Chinese province bordering Burma.

The oil pipeline will have a capacity of 22m tons a year when it is completed, according to Xinhua, China's state-run news agency.

It will allow oil to be transported directly to China without going through the Malacca Strait, which is prone to piracy.

Beijing will also be aware that this narrow stretch of waterway is also easier to control by a major power, such as the United States.

The gas pipeline will transport Burma's own vast supplies of gas to China, ever hungry for new sources of energy.

There is also a military dimension: China sells arms to Burma, also known as Myanmar.

Border problems

This helps cement a relationship that many believe could allow Beijing military access to the Indian Ocean, an important development for a country that is building up its navy.

Two Chinese warships last week completed a first ever visit to Burma.

Image caption Gen Than Shwe has ruled Burma since 1992

In return, Burma - ostracised by many nations because of its human rights record - gets vital support from a major country.

China trades with Burma, invests there and provides diplomatic support, particularly in the United Nations.

But the relationship is not without its potential problems - perhaps the biggest arises from instability along the border between the two countries.

There are a number of ethnic groups on the Burmese side that are in conflict with the military government. They often receive support from China.

Last year the Burmese military clashed with one group in Kokang, which led to thousands of refugees fleeing across the border into Yunnan.

The national elections in Burma planned for November also offer the potential for instability.

Some accuse the military government of excluding possible opposition candidates in the vote through arbitrary arrests and unfair electoral laws.

That could de-stabilise the county and, ultimately, threaten Chinese investment there.

"China both wants to profit from Burma and distance itself from Burma's unstable military rule," said Sophie Richardson, acting Asia director at Human Rights Watch, based in New York.

"If the Chinese government doesn't fundamentally alter its approach to Burma, it risks burnishing its reputation as a patron of abusive regimes."

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