Chinese leader Xi Jinping to visit Myanmar next week

BEIJING (AP) — Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit neighboring Myanmar next week amid efforts to strengthen relations with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Myanmar has been a close ally in backing China's claims in the South China Sea and a partner in Xi's signature “Belt and Road” initiative to build railroads, highways, ports and other infrastructure connecting China with other points in Asia and into Europe and Africa.

Chinese projects in Myanmar include a pipeline to channel natural gas from the Middle East overland instead of through the Malacca Strait. China has also sought to mediate conflicts between Myanmar's central government and minority ethnic groups with Chinese roots.

Myanmar has also been a reliable backer, along with Laos and Cambodia, of China's campaign to quash criticism within ASEAN of its claim to virtually the entire South China Sea. China has of late been pushing the organization to approve a code of conduct among nations in the disputed waterway that could seek to forbid military operations in the area by rivals such as the U.S., Australia and Japan.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying announced Friday that Xi would visit Myanmar on Jan. 17-18.