YANGON (Reuters) - Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao reached broad agreement with Myanmar about maintaining stability in restless border regions during a visit on Thursday that he said marked a new stage in ties, media reported.
Wen said he and Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein “reached a broad understanding on protecting the peace and stability of the (Myanmar) border regions” and signed agreements that Wen said “signified another step forward in bilateral relations”, China’s official Xinhua news agency reported.
“We are willing to deepen our friendship with Myanmar and expand cooperation, always acting as a good neighbour, good friend and good partner,” Wen told Myanmar’s prime minister.
China is one of the few countries that keeps close ties with the Southeast Asian nation once called Burma, ruled by a military junta largely shunned by the West. But relations have been frayed by unrest along Myanmar’s remote borderlands with China.
Many of the hilly, remote areas on Myanmar’s side of the border are run by armed groups drawn from a patchwork of ethnic minorities resistant to direct rule by the military government.
Some are narco-states producing and selling drugs into China, and the Myanmar military over ran one of the weakest groups last year, sending about 37,000 refugees streaming into China.
The agreements signed in the two leaders’ presence included ones on a natural gas pipeline, a hydro project, trade and finance, reported Xinhua. China also offered more aid, the news agency said, without giving details.
The deals were signed while Wen was in Myanmar’s new capital Naypyidaw, where he also had a meeting with Senior General Than Shwe, chairman of the State Peace and Development Council, the military-led body that controls the country.
The two countries should strive to ensure that major energy and transport projects that China had underway in Myanmar were completed on time, said Wen, according to Xinhua.
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.
Although short on specifics, the Chinese reports suggested the two countries were moving closer, despite China’s jitters about elections planned for Myanmar this year, which observers say could ignite fresh tension in the borderlands.
The election, a date for which has not been set, has been widely dismissed by opponents as a move by the military to extend its five decade hold on power by creating a facade of civilian rule. They also fear it could also become an opportunity for the junta to press for control of border areas.
Myanmar’s government wants ethnic minority groups to take part in the election and early this year told militias to disarm and join a government-run border patrol force or be wiped out, although it now appears to have backed down slightly.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu would not confirm whether Wen discussed the elections with his hosts. She repeated Beijing’s call for a trouble-free vote.
“We hope that all sides in Myanmar can steadily advance democratic development through reconciliation and cooperation,” Jiang told a regular news conference in Beijing.
The West imposed broad sanctions on Myanmar in 1988, after a military crackdown on pro-democracy protests. China stepped into the void, providing aid and weapons and ramping up trade.
Additional reporting and writing by Chris Buckley in Beijing; Editing by Robert Birsel