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Myanmar junta chief visits China for political, economic support ahead of elections

BEIJING (AP) — Military-run Myanmar's top leader Gen. Than Shwe arrived in Beijing on Tuesday for a state visit to his country's closest ally ahead of contentious national elections this fall.

China strongly backs Myanmar internationally and provides it with key economic and diplomatic support. Myanmar's ruling junta has been largely shunned by the West because of its poor human rights record and failure to hand over power to the opposition party that won elections two decades ago.

Than Shwe is expected to seek China's support for plans to hold nationwide elections in early November that the junta is portraying as a key step in shifting to civilian rule after five decades of military domination. Critics have called them a sham and say the military shows little sign of relinquishing control.

Than Shwe will meet President Hu Jintao along with Premier Wen Jiabao and other senior Chinese officials in Beijing. He is scheduled to visit the Shanghai Expo and the manufacturing hub of Shenzhen in southern Guangdong province before he departs Saturday.

Though no details have been released about their agenda, experts expect talks to center on the upcoming elections as well as economic deals signed by Wen earlier this year.

"He needs to talk to China about how to further develop their mutual relations if he wins the election, and how China and Myanmar can go further in cooperating politically and economically," said Zhao Haili, associate professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Xiamen University.

The countries have generally enjoyed strong relations in recent years, though there was some friction when factional fighting sent tens of thousands of Burmese refugees across the Chinese border last summer.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told a regular news conference Tuesday that the election was Myanmar's internal affair. "We hope the international community can provide constructive help to the upcoming election and refrain from making any negative impact on the domestic political process and the regional peace and stability," she said.

Than Shwe's visit comes three months after Wen went to Myanmar, the first trip by a Chinese leader since 2001. Wen signed 15 agreements on cooperation in areas including a natural gas pipeline, hydropower station and development assistance, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

China is Myanmar's third-largest trading partner and investor after Thailand and Singapore. In 2009, bilateral trade totaled $2.9 billion, Xinhua said. By January 2010, China's investment in Myanmar amounted to $1.8 billion, accounting for 11.5 percent of Myanmar's then total foreign investment.

But this May, China made huge investments in hydropower, oil and gas, totaling $8.17 billion, Xinhua said, quoting Myanmar government statistics.