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India steps up engagement with Myanmar as China looms over military regime

NEW DELHI (AP) — India welcomed the head of Myanmar's isolated military government Tuesday despite international criticism, as New Delhi competes to assert its influence in the region.

India's relationship with Myanmar, considered a pariah in some quarters, has taken on new importance because of concerns over insurgencies and drug trafficking along their shared border. It is also competing with China for access to the country's large natural gas resources.

Myanmar junta chief Than Shwe was to meet India's senior leaders Tuesday and is expected to sign a series of cooperation agreements on the smuggling of arms, drugs and ammunition across their 1,025-mile (1,650-kilometer) frontier.

"There are insurgencies on both sides (of the border) and both countries need each other," said G. Parthasarathy, a former Indian ambassador to Myanmar.

India has also grown wary of China's influence in Myanmar, and is in competition with its regional rival for access to the country's large natural gas resources.

India, a major importer of fuel, has ignored the junta's attempts to snuff out democracy in the reclusive Southeast Asian nation.

New Delhi, which has established deep economic and military ties with Myanmar's generals over the past decade, has said it believed talking quietly is a better approach than sanctions.

"India has long supported the democratic movement in Myanmar. At the same time, however, it has made clear that isolation is not an option with any neighbor," the Indian Express newspaper said in an editorial.

Than Shwe's visit has been marked by criticism and protest from pro-democracy activists.

After many years of supporting the democratic movement in Myanmar led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, India switched tracks and reached out to the military regime.

New Delhi has begun work on an ambitious transport corridor across Myanmar that would give India's remote landlocked northeastern states access to the Bay of Bengal through the Myanmar port city of Sittwe. India has also agreed to help restore the renowned Ananda Temple, a noted Buddhist shrine and major tourist attraction, in Myanmar's central Bagan district.

Last week, the U.S. State Department said it hoped India would press Myanmar over democratic reform, engaging the opposition and other ethnic groups in the country.