NAYPYITAW – China's President Xi Jinping was given a lavish welcome to Myanmar as he arrived Friday for a state visit meant to deepen bilateral relations at a critical time.
The visit nominally marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Myanmar, but also carries the promise of significantly boosting China's profile and future investments.
Xi's arrival was greeted with dancing children and youths waving the national flags of both countries and cheering, "Long live China-"Myanmar friendship" and “Health to President Xi."
China's ambassador to Myanmar, Chen Hai, told Chinese journalists last week that during Xi's two-day visit, the two countries would sign agreements "covering politics, economy, livelihoods and regional cooperation." Some are expected to expedite major infrastructure projects that will extend Beijing's strategic presence to the Indian Ocean.
A complicating factor is Myanmar's general election, scheduled for late 2020. Too much wheeling and dealing with China could leave the government of the de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi', vulnerable to accusations by political opponents that it is selling out the country.
The trip is Xi 's first to Myanmar as president and his first foreign visit this year. Jiang Zemin was the last Chinese president to visit Myanmar, when he signed several economic and border agreements in 2001.
Chen, the ambassador, said Xi will meet with Myanmar's President Win Myint, State Counselor Suu Kyi and military chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, lawmakers and other opinion-makers.
Myanmar is a linchpin of China's geopolitical ambitions. It offers access to the Indian Ocean that could allow its sizable oil and gas imports from the Persian Gulf to bypass going through the Strait of Malacca. It's also a bridge to South Asia and beyond in Beijing's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative to build railroads, highways, ports and other infrastructure connecting China with other points in Asia, Europe and Africa.
China serves as a no-questions-asked ally to Myanmar, giving it diplomatic cover as the country faces widespread condemnation over its human rights record. It is threatened with Western economic sanctions over a brutal counterinsurgency campaign that has driven more than 700,000 members of the country's Muslim Rohingya minority to flee for safety in neighboring Bangladesh.
Last month a case charging Myanmar with genocide came before the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands.
China for years has defended Myanmar in forums such as the United Nations, and Myanmar has returned the favor by following Beijing's positions on issue such as China's claims over territory in the South China Sea.
More importantly, China as a top investor and trade partner with Myanmar offers economic insurance if Western nations do impose sanctions.
Just days before Suu Kyi went to The Hague in December to lead her country's delegation at the initial hearings of the International Court of Justice, she met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The court holds another hearing next week.
“Xi is visiting Myanmar at the very right time. And Myanmar wants to show the Western world that China is backing them," Germany-based Rohingya activist Nay San Lwin told The Associated Press. "I think it is not a coincidence. Myanmar wanted to say to the West to be careful if you impose any sanctions."
Beijing in recent years has vied with Washington for influence in Southeast Asia.
China also uses its influence with various Myanmar ethnic rebel groups based along the countries' border who are battling battle for autonomy from the central government.
While China has promoted peace talks between the the rebels and Myanmar's government, its close ties with some of the rebel groups allow it to retain the option of threatening violence by using ethnic guerrillas as proxies.
What appears to be a mutually beneficial quid pro quo with China won't necessarily play well domestically, a worry for Suu Kyi and her ruling National League for Democracy party as it faces new elections. A longstanding, strong undercurrent of anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar has grown in response to sometimes heavy-handed implementation of Chinese-backed projects that run roughshod over local communities, provoking allegations of land-grabbing, environmental damage and selling out the country's resources.
Myanmar's previous military-backed government was forced by popular demand to suspend plans for the massive $3.6 billion Myitsone hydroelectric dam project in 2011, but it has not been canceled. Activists plan a protest against the project on Saturday outside the Chinese Embassy in Yangon.
Hurdles may be cleared during Xi's visit to give the go-ahead to another project arguably more important to Beijing, the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone on the Bay of Bengal. With a deep-water port, it is the terminus of the 1,700-kilometer- (1,055-mile-) long China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, a major link in the Belt and Road Initiative whose other end is in China's Yunnan province.
It includes cross-border oil and gas pipelines that have been operating for years. An industrial park and major railway are planned, though projected high costs have given pause.
Amnesty International is among the critics of the Chinese-assisted projects.
"With major economic and infrastructure agreements expected to be signed during President Xi's visit, the absolute lack of transparency over such agreements is deeply disturbing," the human rights group said in a statement Thursday. “Investment in infrastructure can help raise living standards and realize human rights through improved access to basic services and employment.”
“But these benefits are not delivered if those who bear the heaviest cost — the women, men, and children whose homes, health, livelihoods are be affected — are not adequately consulted before construction starts and protected from potential harm. Human rights, transparency, and consultation with communities should be at the heart of these projects.”
Associated Press writer Grant Peck in Bangkok contributed to this report.