BEIJING, Sep 26 (Reuters) China has been quietly nurturing ties with democratic and ethnic groups at odds with Myanmar's military government, partly hedging bets in the restive Southeast Asian nation even as Beijing avoids openly criticising the junta.
China has been a steady friend of the generals who have ruled for decades in Myanmar, also known as Burma, standing by them after they crushed a pro-democracy uprising in 1988 and then swept aside a 1990 election won by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy.
In past days, as thousands of Buddhist clergy have taken to Myanmar's streets to demand democratic change, Beijing has avoided public pressure on its resource-rich neighbour, instead urging ''stability'' and vowing non-interference.
But behind the scenes in past months and even years China has held low-key meetings with minority ethnic and democratic opposition groups, said group representatives and a Western analyst.
Zin Linn, a spokesman for the exiled National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma in Thailand, said his organisation had met Chinese representatives in the past year or so.
''They didn't accept us officially or say they wanted to have formal relations, but I think they are trying to understand the situation and our views,'' he said of China.
Beijing has a deep investment in Myanmar's future, with concerns about trade, border stability and fighting drugs magnified by plans to build oil and gas pipelines through Myanmar's ethnically mixed border regions into China.
The meetings showed that China realised it had to explore other options in Myanmar, even if it was not ready to turn on the generals, said Andrew Small, a researcher at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels, who has co-written a study of Beijing's relations with ''rogue'' regimes widely criticised by the West.
''With this big pipeline investment, they've got an even bigger stake in a stable neighbour,'' said Small, who added he recently spoke to Myanmar sources knowledgeable about contacts with China.
''They know they can't afford poor relations with either the ethnic groups or the democratic groups if their interests are to survive a change in power''.
DELICATE PRESSURE Western powers have shunned contact with the junta and even many of Myanmar's neighbours have grown impatient with its reluctance to launch dialogue with opposition groups.
China has so far shown no open signs of jettisoning support for Myanmar's embattled junta.
In January, China and Russia vetoed a resolution calling on it to stop persecuting minority and opposition groups and to take concrete steps towards democracy.
More quietly, however, China appears to have been seeking to temper its support with delicate pressure on the generals.
Senior Chinese diplomat Tang Jiaxuan has urged Myanmar to push forward with a ''democracy process that is appropriate for the country''. Earlier this year, Beijing hosted talks between the United States and Myanmar.
Since opposing the UN resolution, China has apparently stepped up contacts with groups at odds with the regime, said Small.
Some opposition figures were also hosted earlier this year at a thinktank in Beijing run by the Foreign Ministry, according to a Chinese researcher. He asked that his name not be used, fearing official anger.
''It's like North Korea,'' he said. ''Westerners think China can throw around its influence in Myanmar and change things at once. But our influence is limited and we have to be careful not to rupture ties.'' Leaders of the ethnic regions along Myanmar's border had been brought to the southwestern city of Kunming for meetings, ostensibly with academic researchers but also closely watched by officials, said Small.
China worried that flaring armed insurgency there would threaten border security and also the planned pipelines, he said.
SYMPATHY Zin Linn, the spokesman, said his group had also participated in ''occasional'' meetings in Kunming with Yunnan province officials, apparently acting at the behest of the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
''The government has a lot of problems on the border with drugs and AIDS, and we said the democratic forces would actually help stabilise the region,'' he said.
Thaung Htun, UN representative for the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, said from New York that he had met lower-ranking Chinese officials in Kunming last year.
''They expressed some sympathy about the plight of our people with economic hardship,'' he said. He added China did not appear ready to abandon the generals but many opposition groups understood the logic of fostering some ties with Beijing.
''China is our big neighbour, growing rapidly and becoming a big power,'' he said. ''Our foreign policy vision is for friendly relations with China, that's unavoidable''.
China has been publicly coy about any contacts with opposition forces in Myanmar.
Yesterday, a spokesman for the ruling Communist Party's international department, Guo Yazhou, repeatedly denied any ''formal'' contact with Burmese opposition forces.
REUTERS SG BD1030