China's president welcomed the leader of Myanmar's ruling junta on Wednesday with a red carpet and a military band, pageantry that underscores China's strong support for its resource-rich neighbor where Beijing has made huge investments.
Gen. Than Shwe had come on a five-day visit, seeking backing from his country's strongest ally for November elections that mark the first nationwide balloting in two decades.
The junta has called the elections a key step in shifting to civilian rule after decades of military domination, but critics have derided them as a sham, saying the junta is unlikely to relinquish control.
China has long been Myanmar's lone source of diplomatic and economic support, shrugging off international criticism over its pariah status to maintain and even deepen ties with the ruling regime.
Some analysts see the visit as a signal that Beijing is drawing even closer to its neighbor, hoping to cement its long-term influence in Myanmar, which is largely impoverished but rich in natural resources, including timber, minerals and oil and gas deposits.
"China is throwing its chips in with the junta," said Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, head of the International Crisis Group in China, noting the large investments China has recently poured into the country.
Following a formal red-carpet ceremony at the Great Hall of the People, Chinese President Hu Jintao told the Myanmar leader, who was dressed in a dark suit and red tie, that he believed the visit would "further promote bilateral relations and mutual cooperation between neighbors."
Than Shwe was accompanied by a large delegation, including several former military leaders who have apparently stepped down from their posts in order to run as civilians in the upcoming election.
The junta chief said the main purpose of his trip was to "further promote the already existing neighborly friendship, mutual cooperation and trust between the two countries."
A day earlier, China's Foreign Ministry defended the upcoming elections as Myanmar's internal affair and urged other countries not to interfere. "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," spokeswoman Jiang Yu 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.
This May, China made huge investments in hydropower, oil and gas, totaling $8.17 billion, Xinhua said, quoting Myanmar government statistics.
The two countries have generally enjoyed strong ties in recent years, though there was some friction when fighting between government forces and ethnic groups sent tens of thousands of Myanmar refugees across the Chinese border last summer, resulting in a rare warning from Beijing.
However, China has also been wary of recent overtures by the United States to engage with Myanmar's leaders more directly, said Zhao Haili, associate professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Xiamen University.
"The Chinese leaders know that the Burmese leader is going to have to decide whether or not to get closer to the U.S. in the future," he said, using an alternate name for Myanmar and its people. "China has been desperate to figure out whether Myanmar is going to be closer with the U.S., and how that is going to change Myanmar's strategic relations with neighboring countries after the general election."
Than Shwe will meet with Premier Wen Jiabao on Thursday and will also fly to the Shanghai Expo and the manufacturing hub of Shenzhen in southern Guangdong province before he departs Saturday.
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, Xinhua said.