PREVIEW - Myanmar's new leader to reaffirm vital China ties

BEIJING/YANGON Tue May 24, 2011 3:04pm IST

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BEIJING/YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar's new civilian president, Thein Sein, visits China this week in a show of friendship to the former Burma's most important diplomatic ally, where he may sign deals to cement an already close economic relationship.

Thein Sein, a loyalist of the reclusive former paramount leader Than Shwe, is no stranger to China, having met top Chinese leaders in the past in his previous official capacities, including as prime minister.

"He's a known quantity to China having visited several times before," said Lin Xixing, a Myanmar expert at Guangzhou's Jinan University.

"He'll probably sign several agreements and maybe visit some industrial sites, as Myanmar's focus now is developing its economy," Lin added. "China is investing large sums in high-speed rail and road links, as well as pipelines, in Myanmar."

Bilateral trade rose more than half last year to $4.4 billion, and China's investment in Myanmar reached $12.3 billion in 2010, according to Chinese figures, with a strong focus on natural resources and energy projects.

Diplomatically, China provides Myanmar with cover at the United Nations, fending off calls for tougher action demanded by the West on Myanmar's human rights record.

Thein Sein's first major foreign visitor since taking up office in February under Myanmar's "road map" back to democracy and civilian rule was the Chinese Communist Party's fourth ranked leader, Jia Qinglin.

While Western nations slammed Myanmar's election last year as a sham, Beijing has shown no such concerns, promising instead to do even more to help the country, on which China will increasingly rely for its energy security.

"China supports the development path chosen by Myanmar in accordance with its own national condition, and will keep supplying what help it can for Myanmar's development," Xinhua news agency quoted Jia as telling Thein Sein last month.

INDIAN OCEAN ACCESS

Myanmar gives China access to the Indian Ocean, not only for imports of oil and gas and exports from landlocked southwestern Chinese provinces, but also potentially for military bases or listening posts.

In October, China's state energy group CNPC started building a crude oil port in Myanmar, part of a pipeline project aimed at cutting out the long detour oil cargoes take through the congested and strategically vulnerable Malacca Strait.

Myanmar's internal political issues could be on the agenda as well.

China has frequently expressed its concern at instability along their often mountainous and remote border, where rebel groups deeply involved in the narcotics trade have been fighting Myanmar's central government for decades.

In August 2009, refugees flooded across into China following fighting on the Myanmar side of the border between rebels and government troops, promoting an unusually public show of anger from Beijing towards its poor southern neighbour.

"I think the main purpose of Thein Sein's brief visit is to show a special gesture of goodwill to their mentor and to seek its advice on some sensitive domestic issues about ethnic armed groups along the Chinese border," said Thakhin Chan Tun, a former Myanmar ambassador to China.

As the number four in the previous ruling military junta, Thein Sein will be acutely aware of the situation with the rebels along the border.

One retired senior Myanmar Foreign Ministry official told Reuters on condition of anonymity that the short length of Thein Sein's visit likely underscored his worries about such problems.

"He is very eager to express the special importance his government attaches to their close ties with China but at the same time he seems very busy with some perennial problems including mounting tension with major ethnic armed groups along the Chinese border," he said.

"So he cannot afford to spend too much time away."

(Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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