China fetes new Myanmar president on state visit

By CHRISTOPHER BODEEN | May 27, 2011 | 5:59 AM EDT

Myanmar's President Thein Sein, at right facing camera, walks to his car after arriving on a plane in Beijing, China, Thursday, May 26, 2011. Beijing hosts a visit from Sein, a former general and prime minister in the military junta that handed power to a nominally civilian government at the end of March. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

BEIJING (AP) — China is bestowing 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 China and Myanmar's mutual ties. He is due to talk with Chinese President Hu Jintao on Friday, after a formal welcome ceremony inside the Great Hall of the People. They also are expected to sign agreements on technical and economic cooperation.

Thein Sein was prime minister in the long-ruling military junta that stepped aside for elections in November it called a final step on a path to democracy. Critics say it 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 not minding human rights lapses, corruption and strained relations with the West — problems both governments share.

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, by Chinese statistics.

China also has upped its influence by furnishing economic support and military aid and by giving diplomatic protection at the United Nations by vetoing 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.