BANGKOK—China has indicated its support for Burma's military junta to take up its chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, in 2006, RFA's Burmese service reports.
The issue is likely to dominate the ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting starting in Laos Saturday, with the European Union and the United States threatening to boycott an ASEAN chaired by Burma, citing Rangoon's human rights record.
At a meeting between Burmese prime minister Gen. Soe Win and Chinese officials at the Greater Mekong Subregion summit in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming earlier this month, sources said Rangoon had asked Beijing for its view on the matter.
According to three separate diplomatic sources, Chinese officials replied: "The rotational chairmanship is a legitimate right which is accorded in the organization's rules and regulations and is not something acquired through unlawful means and, therefore, China supports this action."
Chinese officials also indicated that Beijing would reject interference by Western powers in the internal affairs of ASEAN.
China wanted to see a strong ASEAN, and would help it become so, the Burmese delegation was told.
The comments, which came during behind-closed-doors bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the Greater Mekong summit, were greatly toned down by a Chinese diplomat in Rangoon, who said he had not been briefed on them.
"China also sees this issue as ASEAN's internal affair," the diplomat told RFA's Burmese service. "China will respect the decision of [Burma] and ASEAN," the diplomat said, adding that Beijing would use very weak language in public if pressed.
Beijing's recent comments on Burma shed light on a subtle game of influence between China and its smaller neighbors, with Beijing angling for strong economic ties, without appearing to seek political influence in the 10-nation grouping.
Ties between Beijing and Rangoon have grown closer on the back of a wave of Chinese debt relief, economic aid and infrastructure investment in the country, as well as arms sales.
ASEAN groups Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Original reporting by RFA's Burmese service. Produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie.