Myanmar's relationship with China has been a high priority for Than Shwe, who visited Beijing in 1989 as a SLORC emissary and again in 1996 as head of state. His efforts at arms procurement from China and improved border trade were quite successful, although they led to opposition charges that Myanmar was becoming a client state of the northern neighbor. India's government warmed up to the SPDC during 2002–03 with military sales and commercial deal-making.
Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries adopted a "constructive engagement" policy towards Myanmar, which was accepted for membership in the organization in July 1997. ASEAN investment in Myanmar declined with the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s, however. Relations with Thailand, Myanmar's close neighbor, have run hot and cold. Thailand has suffered from waves of refugees and an influx of Burmese methamphetamines, while engaged in a controversial gas pipeline venture involving the junta , and French and U.S. companies. Japan similarly promoted business ties with Myanmar, but its investments were on the wane at the turn of the twenty-first century, due to corruption and other difficult ventures in Myanmar.
The United States imposed limited economic sanctions on Myanmar in 1996, followed by the European Community (EC). The United States and EC also observe an arms embargo against the SPDC. Prodemocracy exiles and overseas activists have organized boycotts of companies involved in Myanmar, and cities have passed "selective purchasing" laws aimed at pressuring those firms. The ILO, an agency of the UN, imposed sanctions on the country in 2001 and has sent investigators to study continuing forced labor practices there.
Than Shwe has proved impervious to outside pressure as well as economic inducements aimed at bringing him to the table for a tri-partite dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD and ethnic leaders. In the process Myanmar has grown poorer and more repressed. Perhaps Than Shwe's main accomplishment has been preserving the intact unity of the junta itself, under such besieged conditions.