Singapore — There is one important but reclusive obstacle to China's campaign of winning friends and neighbors. It is the one-time Buddhist kingdom turned socialist state, Burma.
Under the one-party rule of President U Ne Win, Burma has continued to defy China's best-laid plans to win warm relations with southeast Asia. In Burma, China has been unable to overcome a residue of suspicion over Peking's support of local communist rebels, in this case the outlawed Burmese Communist Party. It is a sore point because similar issues lie just beneath the surface throughout Southeast Asia.
Despite a multitude of diplomatic visits during the last two years, the mercurial Ne Win appears as suspicious as ever of Chinese intentions. One reason: According to some estimates the strength of communist guerrillas operating along the 1,300- mile Sino-Burmese border has doubled to some 20,000 in the last five-years.
The rebels are reported to have fled back and forth into China for sanctuary. Chinese advisers are not operating with Burmese communists inside Burma as they did between 1968 and 1974, according to some reports from Rangoon. But another irritant has arisen. The rebels are reported to have better weapons since mid- 1979, including heavy mortars, recoilless rifles and a variety of land mines. This has counteracted any goodwill brought when China stopped supplying money and food to Burmese communists in 1978.
Another irritant has been reports that the Burmese communists have been allowing opium-growing in areas they control.
The opium goes to Burma, Thailand, and on to the West. Leaders have been alarmed by drug use among their own youth and launched a program of control.
All this might seem of little importance since Burma, a mountainous, landlocked, backward country of 32 million is isolated and relatively noninfluential.
But to other Southeast Asian countries Burma China relations can be a bellwether of just how far China is willing to trim its support for insurgents. Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and even China-oriented Thailand have concerns over Chinese backing of communist rebels.
China maintains its right to conduct limited "party to party" relations with such rebels. Southeast Asian countries say that is a semantic cover for Chinese intervention in Southeast Asian affairs.
In a recent Southeast Asian tour Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang said China would limit its support to overseas communist parties to moral support.
China and Burma have, however, kept up a labored, sometimes acrimonious, if largely private dialogue.In October President Ne Win met Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping in Peking. He is said to have protested what he saw as China's tolerance of opium activities in areas controlled by Burma's Communist Party.
As a signal of continuing disagreement, Burma later took a number of steps displeasing to China.
Among them: de facto "derecognition" of the Chinese-backed Pol Pot shadow guerrilla government in Cambodia and a friendlier attitude toward Vietnam.
In 1978 Deng Xiaoping had visited Burma in China's first major post-"gang of four" effort to mend relations with burma.
Some 50,000 persons greeted him at the Airport in Rangoon. This was indeed significant because a strong anti-Chinese sentiment has long existed in Burma, and sometimes displayed itself in violent anti- Chinese riots.
But the warmth of that greeting quickly wore off. Strong disagreement, apparently centering on Deng's refusal to give Ne Win the guarantees he wanted, led to canceling of a joint holiday retreat.
Earlier this month China's prime minister, Zhao ziyang, also visited Burma. This time the reception was correct but hardy warm.
According to some reports the Burmese communists have been quieter in the last few months.
But Burma, in fact, has a difficult dilemma on its hands. It can protest China's involvement with guerrillas on its borders by growing friendliness with Vietnam -- or even more drastically with China's major rival, the Soviet Union.
But as one diplomat is quoted as saying, "If China felt Burma was getting too close to Vietnam or even remotely to the Soviet Union, it would step up its involvement with Burma's communists.'
That could be a very serious problem for a country already nearly torn apart by ethnic and tribal rebellions.