- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 8, 2010

BEIJING | China’s president welcomed the leader of Burma’s ruling junta on Wednesday with a red carpet and a military band, pageantry that underscores China’s strong support for its resource-rich neighbor where Beijing has made huge investments.

Gen. Than Shwe had come on a five-day visit, seeking backing from his country’s strongest ally for November elections that mark the first nationwide balloting in two decades.

The junta has called the elections a key step in shifting to civilian rule after decades of military domination, but critics have derided them as a sham, saying the junta is unlikely to relinquish control.

China has long been Burma’s lone source of diplomatic and economic support, shrugging off international criticism over its pariah status to maintain and even deepen ties with the ruling regime.

Some analysts see the visit as a signal that Beijing is drawing even closer to its neighbor, hoping to cement its long-term influence in Burma, which is largely impoverished but rich in natural resources, including timber, minerals, and oil and gas deposits.

China is throwing its chips in with the junta,” said Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, head of the International Crisis Group in China, noting the large investments China has recently poured into the country.

After a formal red-carpet ceremony at the Great Hall of the People, Chinese President Hu Jintao told the Burmese leader, who was dressed in a dark suit and red tie, that he believed the visit would “further promote bilateral relations and mutual cooperation between neighbors.”

Gen. Than Shwe was accompanied by a large delegation, including several former military leaders who apparently have stepped down from their posts in order to run as civilians in the upcoming election.

The junta chief said the main purpose of his trip was to “further promote the already existing neighborly friendship, mutual cooperation and trust between the two countries.”

A day earlier, China’s Foreign Ministry defended the upcoming elections as Burma’s internal affair and urged other countries not to interfere.

“We hope the international community can provide constructive help to the upcoming election and refrain from making any negative impact on the domestic political process and the regional peace and stability,” spokeswoman Jiang Yu said.

China is Burma’s third-largest trading partner and investor after Thailand and Singapore. In 2009, bilateral trade totaled $2.9 billion, Xinhua said. By January 2010, China’s investment in Burma amounted to $1.8 billion, accounting for 11.5 percent of Burma’s then total foreign investment.

This May, China made huge investments in hydropower, oil and gas, totaling $8.17 billion, Xinhua said, quoting Burmese government statistics.