KYAUKPYU (Myanmar) • A powerful ethnic nationalist politician from one of Myanmar's poorest and most volatile regions said Chinese officials made him an irresistible offer during a recent visit: Ask for anything, and we will give it to you.
Beijing's courting of Arakan National Party (ANP) chairman Aye Maung underscores how China is taking steps to protect its most strategic investments in Myanmar - twin oil and gas pipelines and a deep sea port - ahead of unpredictable upcoming elections in the South-east Asian nation.
Such willingness to engage with opposition parties to secure its investments overseas represents a major shift in China's non-interventionist foreign policy.
"We want China, or even America, or Singapore; if the Indian government invites me, we welcome it," Dr Aye Maung said at an interview in Ann, a town near the fishing town of Kyaukpyu in Rakhine state. "We need so many investments for the development of our area."
The ANP, an organisation of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists that is riding a tide of anti-Muslim sentiment, is poised to make a near clean sweep of Rakhine state in Myanmar's first free and fair elections in 25 years. There is speculation that Dr Aye Maung could win the powerful post of chief minister of the state.
That makes him a key potential ally for Beijing, whose most important Myanmar investments are located in the western state.
Kyaukpyu is at the heart of China's drive for new resources and trade routes. New oil and gas pipelines from the town link China's south-western province of Yunnan directly with the Indian Ocean, bypassing the Malacca Strait, where a United States naval presence has long worried China's policymakers.
According to Dr Aye Maung, the ruling Chinese Communist Party invited him to visit China in July. At one meeting, he said an official from the party's International Department told him China had only engaged with President Thein Sein's ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, Ms Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy and the ANP.
"They told me: We have connected with three parties. You are the one party from all the ethnic groups in Myanmar," Dr Aye Maung said.
Dr Aye Maung said he has not responded to China's offers of help, but would like tractors and farm machinery to help with Rakhine's harvest, and had also discussed student scholarships.
But embracing Beijing is not without risk. "There has been a lot of criticism about Dr Aye Maung's trip from local organisations and young people," said Mr Htoot May, an ANP candidate running in the polls.
Mr Zaw Htay, a senior official from Mr Thein Sein's office, said the President had encouraged ties between China and non-governmental organisations and rival political parties in Myanmar.
He added: "I think their trying to improve ties with the ANP is just a part of developing this new policy ."