Obama's Myanmar trip "no threat to Chinese interests"

Reuters News
Posted: Nov 09, 2012 6:02 AM
Obama's Myanmar trip "no threat to Chinese interests"

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) - A landmark trip by U.S. President Barack Obama to Myanmar this month poses no threat to China's interests in the Southeast Asian country, a senior Chinese official from a key border province said on Friday.

Obama will become the first U.S. leader to visit Myanmar, the strongest international endorsement of a fragile democratic transition that his administration believes could help counter China's influence in a strategically important region.

Chinese media, academics and even a few diplomats have worried that U.S. engagement in rapidly democratizing Myanmar could threaten Beijing's relationship with what had been an important trade partner and de facto ally.

But Qin Guangrong, the Communist Party chief of Yunnan province, which borders Myanmar and has deep business ties with it, said China was fully behind its opening up, especially as peace and stability there would benefit China.

Qin said he was well aware of Obama's pending trip.

"We understand and support the wish of the Myanmar authorities wanting to open up and become part of the world," he told reporters on the sidelines of a Communist Party congress, in rare comments on a sensitive relationship.

"We believe that Myanmar's leaders will exercise their wisdom to lead their country's opening up. They know that the people of China will always be true friends of Myanmar's."

China has long been worried by instability in its much poorer southern neighbor, whether by fighting between Myanmar's government and ethnic rebels spilling over into China or by the flow of drugs in its southwestern provinces.

A stable Myanmar should make it easier for Chinese companies which have poured vast sums into the country in recent years in the absence of Western investment to operate more easily, though inevitably it will also bring competition, now that the United States and European Union have substantially eased sanctions.

Qin pointed out that Yunnan had hosted mediation efforts between Myanmar and ethnic Kachins after fighting flared in 2011 following a 17-year truce, pushing refugees into China.

"Yunnan hopes for peace in Myanmar, ethnic harmony and economic development and peace on the border. We don't want to see Myanmar going back to a state of long-term war and chaos," he said.

Qin said Yunnan had been playing "close attention" to Myanmar's political reforms, which he said had led to "many important changes".

Still, concern persists over some vital Chinese projects in the country, notably a twin oil and gas pipeline being built across Myanmar into Yunnan.

There is a history of resentment of China among the Burmese population and fierce public opposition to a $3.6 billion Chinese-built dam at Myitsone that prompted President Thein Sein to shelve the project last year, a move that stunned Beijing.

"We hope that Myanmar will protect the safety of China's investments and personnel there," Qin said. "Because the cooperation on these projects accord with the interests of both sides, and are mutually beneficially and win-win."

(Editing by Nick Macfie and Ron Popeski)