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China’s leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping met Burma’s military chief on Monday and pledged stronger ties, days before US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton starts a historic trip to the closed state.
Clinton will become the most senior US official to visit Burma in more than 50 years on Wednesday when she arrives on a trip seen as a bid to advance US priorities in a country that has long enjoyed close ties to China.
Xi proposed that the nations’ militaries “enhance exchange and deepen cooperation” when he met the commander-in-chief of Burma’s armed forces, Min Aung Hlaing, in Beijing, the official Xinhua news agency said.
“The friendship, forged by leaders of the older generations, has endured changes in the international arena,” Xinhua quoted Vice President Xi as saying.
“China will work with Myanmar [Burma] to further bolster the comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation,” added Xi, who is widely expected to take over from President Hu Jintao in 2013.
Burma and China have long been close allies, although the relationship is complicated, with some in the Southeast Asian nation resentful over Beijing’s overwhelming economic influence and historic border conflicts.
Burma — which since last year has held elections and freed democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest — recently defied China by shutting down work on an unpopular dam that would supply power across the border.
Experts say Clinton’s trip to Burma aims not only to test the waters after dramatic but tentative reforms in the country, but also to shake up the battle for global influence on China’s doorstep.
It follows a tour of Pacific nations by US President Barack Obama aimed at reinforcing US influence in the region amid growing concerns about the rise of China.
During his trip, Obama announced the stationing of US troops in Australia — a move Beijing said may not be “quite appropriate” — and also pushed ahead a trans-Pacific free trade agreement that for now excludes China.
But US influence in Burma is likely to be limited. Washington bans virtually all trade with the country and any decision to end sanctions would need approval from Congress.