Burma’s prime minister arrives in China on an official visit today, in a sign that Beijing remains willing to foster close ties with the military junta even as it comes under rising pressure from the west and south-east Asian nations to relax its dictatorial rule.

Burma is one of a number of pariah regimes, including Sudan, Iran and North Korea, with which Beijing has been careful to preserve close relations either for strategic reasons or to retain access to oil and gas reserves.

China, long one of Burma’s biggest patrons, sees itself as having broad economic and strategic interests in its southern neighbour, including a desire to tap into the regime’s vast supplies of natural gas to power its own economy.

Burma also has military bases and a port that would potentially allow Beijing to project its naval power into the Indian Ocean.

Zhai Kun, of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations in Beijing, said energy was a “priority in China’s foreign policy” these days.

But he said the most important issue remained Burma’s “stability”, to ensure that China was not forced to police any troubles on its border with its neighbour.

“Even if the democratic leaders took power in [Burma], we would be willing to have good relations with them as well, if they could keep stability,” he said.

The Chinese border town adjacent to Burma, Ruili, has been the centre of Chinese efforts to control the spread of HIV/Aids and stop an influx of illicit drugs.

But while China publicly maintains a posture of respect for the regime’s right to manage the country’s internal affairs, Beijing was said to be privately shocked and dismayed by the October 2004 purge of Khin Nyunt, former prime minister, who was seen as a relatively pragmatic moderniser within the junta.

Since then, Burmese exiles say, Beijing has quietly broadened its range of contacts with exile-based opposition groups and politicians.

“The Burmese situation is really unstable and the Chinese are worried,” said Aung Thu Nyein, an independent Burmese political analyst who has had contacts with Chinese officials.

“They are concerned about a ‘colour’ revolution, and they think that will be grounds for the US to play in the region.”

In another sign of its anxiety, Beijing allowed conditions in Burma to be informally discussed by the UN Security Council last year.

For its part, Burma’s military wants to shore up Chinese support to help it withstand mounting international pressure – not just from traditional critics like the US, but also from friendly south-east Asian countries which have grown impatient with the lack of progress on long-promised political reforms.

Washington has already signalled that it will soon try to raise again the issue of Burma at the United Nations Security Council, and analysts say the Burmese military wants to ensure that China will block any move to put Burma on the council’s formal agenda.

Kong Quan, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said Beijing expected the trip to “further expand and deepen the traditional friendship between China and Myanmar”.

Soe Win, who has previously visited China as the head of a trade delegation but not on an official state visit as prime minister, will meet President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao in his four-day trip. Bilateral trade was worth $1.32bn in 2005. About three-quarters of Chinese imports from Burma, worth $274m, were logs and wood products.

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