YANGON/BEIJING China's ambassador to Myanmar held a rare meeting with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi last week, her aide said on Thursday, in the highest level contact in two decades between Beijing and Myanmar's opposition.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin also said the two met, adding that China's top diplomat, State Councilor Dai Bingguo, would travel to Myanmar for a summit next week of Mekong River countries, weeks after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's landmark visit there.
Liu said that ambassador Li Junhua's meeting with Nobel Peace Prize laureate was in response to a request from her.
"Madame Aung San Suu Kyi has proposed a number of times her desire for contact with the Chinese side, and the Chinese ambassador to Myanmar's meeting was in answer to this," he said, but declined to say when or where the meeting took place.
Liu said the ambassador "listened to Aung San Suu Kyi's ideas."
Suu Kyi's chief of staff, Khun Tha Myint, told Reuters that the meeting happened on December 8 at Suu Kyi's residence, and lasted just over one hour.
"The meeting went very well," he said. "It was very cordial and friendly."
Suu Kyi has tried to reassure China, who strongly backed the military regime which locked her up, that she does not consider Beijing an enemy, making remarks to that effect almost immediately upon being released from house arrest last year.
"I am glad that both China and Suu Kyi realize the importance of good ties between Myanmar and China," a retired senior Myanmar diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
"Having good ties between Myanmar and China is very important not only for Myanmar and China but also for the stability and prosperity of the entire region."
China's then-ambassador Cheng Ruisheng, who served in Myanmar from 1987 to 1991, met Suu Kyi twice and had previously been the most senior Chinese official to have contact with her, according to Chinese media.
"Since the U.S. visit, we ought to be stepping up our visits and contacts as well," said Lin Xixing, a Myanmar expert at Guangzhou's Jinan University.
"Myanmar needs China even more than it needs the United States if it hopes to resolve it problems with ethnic minorities fighting the government," he added, referring to the various groups whose fighting sometimes pushes refugees into China.
Spokesman Liu did not say exactly when Dai, who outranks the foreign minister, would go to Myanmar nor if he would have any bilateral meetings with government leaders while there.
"China has always strived to develop a comprehensive strategic partnership with Myanmar and supports the Myanmar government's efforts to advance economic and social development and promote domestic reconciliation," he added.
Sources had told Reuters this week that Chinese premier Wen Jiabao would attend the Mekong River summit next week. It is not clear why Dai is going instead of Wen.
Beijing has long been Myanmar's closest partner. But relations have been strained after the former Burma suspended building a Chinese-funded dam in September, and have been further affected by Washington's tentative moves to re-engage with the once-isolated country.
Clinton met Suu Kyi this month as Myanmar's new civilian government pledged to forge ahead with political reforms and re-engage with the world community.
Clinton's trip follows a decision by U.S. President Barack Obama last month to open the door to expanded ties, saying he saw the potential for progress in a country until recently seen as a reclusive military dictatorship firmly aligned with China.
With sanctions blocking Western investments, China has emerged as Myanmar's biggest ally, investing in infrastructure, hydropower dams and twin oil-and-gas pipelines to help feed southern China's growing energy needs.
China has also counted on Myanmar as a bulwark against what Beijing sees as U.S. attempts to surround China. That could be threatened now Washington has begun contacts with a Myanmar which is embarking on tentative political liberalization.
(Additional reporting by Chris Buckley and Sabrina Mao; Editing by Yoko Nishikawa)