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Beijing Attempts To Gain a Toehold In Southern Asia

AS their neighbors watch uneasily, China and Burma are building a trade and military nexus that is expected to strengthen during a visit by Chinese Premier Li Peng this week.

Mr. Li's three-day trip, which started yesterday, reflects the growing warmth between the two countries, which had been at odds for decades until they rallied to each other's support amid international condemnation and isolation in the late 1980s.

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With the end of the cold war and collapse of communism in Europe, China has pursued a dual course in relations with Southeast Asia. It has sought closer economic and smoother diplomatic links as a regional front in Beijing's sensitive rivalry with Washington. Concurrently, it has asserted territorial claims through the region and built up its Navy to be the major economic and military power in Asia and as a future world power.

Beijing, which once supported Burmese communist rebels against the government, stepped in six years ago to back the military junta. In 1988, China allied itself with Burma, after other countries cut off weapons supplies and economic aid to protest the Burmese junta's brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations.

A year later, Burma's military junta backed China when the world shunned Beijing for its suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests.

To meet military needs, China has supplied Burma an arsenal of tanks, aircraft, and patrol ships estimated at $1 billion during the last five years. Beijing has also pleased Burma's generals by funding roads, bridges, dams, ground satellite stations, and a new airport for Mandalay, which has become a booming entrepot for border trade with China.

In exchange, Beijing has won valuable access to sensitive military installations along the Bay of Bengal. In this quest to establish a blue-water navy, China is reportedly building a naval base along Burma's southern coast, while a Chinese-supplied radar post in the Coco Islands allows monitoring of maritime traffic in the area's heavily traveled sea lanes. China also has proposed expanding a port at Kyaukpyu on Ramree Island.

Facing international criticism for supplying arms to a regime that is still widely shunned, China is exerting a growing influence in Burma that worries countries bordering the Indian Ocean. ``There's little worry now because China's naval reach is still limited,'' says an Asian diplomat. ``But in the future, China's presence in Burma could be problematic.''

A Chinese government spokesman refused to confirm whether or not new contracts would be signed during the trip.

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Li, who will meet with Burmese Premier Gen. Than Shwe is also expected to raise the problem of stemming the increasing flow of high-grade heroin from Burma into China's southern Yunnan Province.

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