BEIJING December 1, 2011, 10:17 am ET
BEIJING (AP) — China is a conflicted observer to Hillary Rodham Clinton's trip to Myanmar, caught between worries about U.S. encirclement in Asia and a desire to see its isolated, at times teetering neighbor become more stable.
The discord is evident in Beijing's public pronouncements about the U.S. secretary of state's visit. While the Foreign Ministry expressed support Thursday for Myanmar's outreach to the West, a top Chinese leader called for closer military relations when meeting Myanmar's armed forces commander this week. On state-run television, a commentary appended to footage of Clinton's arrival showed U.S. aircraft carrier groups in the Pacific.
"Beijing understands Myanmar's aspiration to diversify its international engagement and improve relations with the United States. However, Beijing doesn't wish to see those goals achieved at the expense of China," said Sun Yun, an expert on China's foreign relations at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Though estranged for decades when China armed anti-government ethnic groups and supported communist revolution in what was then called Burma, Beijing pivoted in the 1990s to lavish the benefits of trade on Myanmar, just as its military-backed government was sinking deeper into international isolation.
Now as Myanmar's largest economic partner, with $4.4 billion in trade last year and nearly $16 billion in total investment, China has unmatched reach. Its state companies are extracting minerals and timber and investing in dams and pipelines. Chinese food products, medicines and other goods flood Myanmar's markets.
As a result China is both ubiquitous and unpopular. The infrastructure projects have drawn protests from ethnic and environmental groups, which in part led to the new government's recent decision to suspend the $3.6 billion China-funded Myitsone dam. Myanmar companies complain they cannot compete with lower-cost Chinese goods, many of which are smuggled over the border and not taxed. One midsize maker of cakes and cookies has said it might have to shut down.
"The Chinese are surprised by the changes in Burma. They misunderstand our country, our people," said Aung Kyaw Zaw, a former Burmese Communist Party strategist who lives in the Chinese border city of Ruili. "They have good relations with the government, but not with the people of Burma. There's more and more anti-Chinese sentiment among the people and among the army."
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