Thein Sein Cements China Ties Before US Trip

By Nyein Nyein 14 September 2012

Burmese President Thein Sein’s plan to travel this month to the world’s two most powerful countries—the United States and China—makes a deliberate statement, say observers.

Thein Sein will first fly to Beijing before embarking on a separate trip to the US to attend a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York during the last week of September.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Friday, Zaw Htay, the director-general of the President’s Office, said they will be “holding a meeting and that the dates are not yet set for the trips.” Nevertheless, the weekly 7Days News Journal reported that Thein Sein will travel to China next week.

Chan Tun, a prominent politician and retired ambassador to Canada, China and North Korea in the 1970s, said, “the move is needed to show to China that Burma still sustains the bilateral relationship with its neighbor although the president has strengthened diplomatic ties with the USA.”

“It is a welcoming move,” added the 91-year-old. “As Burma is now building relationships with two powerful countries, we have to try to build good relationships with both countries.”

Ahead of Thein Sein’s visit to China, Beijing’s top legislator Wu Bangguo is visiting Burma as part of a four-nation tour.

Wu, the chairman of the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC), met with both Burmese parliamentary house speakers on Thursday and discussed ongoing collaborating on energy projects.

During his discussion with the Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann, Wu suggested a “closer China-Burma relationship,” and called for “smooth advancement of large energy projects” between the two countries as well as joint efforts for stability in border regions, reported Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua.

Shwe Mann also promised to keep working on the China-Burma oil and natural gas pipeline project, pay attention to Mekong regional development, enhance the rule of law, and build a prolonged relationship with its powerful neighbor, according to Burmese state-run newspaper The New Light of Myanmar.

Aung Kyaw Zaw, a political analyst based at the Sino-Burmese border for almost three decades, said the president’s trip could be used to discuss problematic energy projects which the previous military regime signed with China.

China reportedly invited Thein Sein for a visit several months ago in order to discuss joint ventures before its leadership transition in coming months, said Aung Kyaw Zaw.

He added that China wishes to communicate with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who will be traveling to the US herself on Sunday, but they do not want to meet her until after Thein Sein’s visit.

On the agenda for talks is the Chinese-backed Myitsone hydropower dam project in war-torn Kachin State which was suspended indefinitely by the Burmese president a year ago—prompting angry remonstrations from Beijing.

Also on the agenda will be Chinese concern over future joint projects, Burma’s current foreign policy and finding a solution to border security. Due to fighting in northern Kachin State, China has been affected economically as a major trade zone has had to close, added Aung Kyaw Zaw.

China has many ongoing investments in Burma including the controversial Letpadaung mountain range copper mine, near Monywa in Sagaing Region, which is co-owned by the Chinese Wan Bao Mining Company.

Farmer and activists have been protesting over the past two months due to environmental destruction to the region and nearby Chindwin River, one of the four main rivers in Burma, as well as land confiscations, arbitrary detentions and forced relocations. However, the Burmese authorities have backed the company so far.

This will be Thein Sein’s second trip to China since he took office in March last year. His first visit was in May 2011.