"Ping-pong diplomacy" has been a political tool since Chinese players took on opponents from the United States in 1971, beginning a thaw in relations between the countries that paved the way for US President Richard Nixon's visit to Beijing.

More than 40 years later, sports are again being used to build bridges with the Chinese: this time in Myanmar. Over the past year, the Myanmar Chinese Chamber of Commerce - which turns 106 this year - has adopted a "friendship first, competition second" attitude to its neighbour over the troubled border.

Last May, the chamber and the Myanmar Table Tennis Federation invited 260 players to compete in the inaugural annual Chinese Traders' Cup in Yangon, which offered 6.5 million kyat (HK$48,000) in prize money.

As part of this programme for promoting friendship between the two countries, last month, six basketball clubs from China met four local teams in the former Myanmese capital. The tournament results were amiably well spread: the Guangxi team were victorious, followed by the Yangon Fire Wolves while the Fox side, from the northern city of Mandalay, known for its high population of ethnic Chinese, came third.

Recent events follow China being a good sport ahead of Myanmar's hosting of the 2013 Southeast Asian Games. Beijing, drawing on its success in hosting the 2008 Olympic Games, sent 28 coaches to prepare Myanmese medal hopefuls, and invited 176 athletes for three months' training in the mainland.

Unlike controversial American basketball star Dennis Rodman, who is happy to publicise his highly unofficial diplomatic role in relations with North Korea, the organisers of the events in Myanmar eschew media attention.

When Post Magazine contacted the chamber to confirm the dates for the second table tennis and basketball tournaments and discuss the importance of their activities, no one would comment. Similarly, chairman of the Myanmar Olympic Committee and Minister for Sports Tint Hsan, who opened both events, was tight-lipped.

Still, a soft power, or "hearts and minds", approach to bringing the Myanmese public around to the idea of engaging with the Chinese is certainly warranted. Protests over the Chinese-run Letpadaung copper mine near Mandalay in December turned deadly after a clash between protesters and riot police left one person dead.

President Thein Sein may have won plaudits for halting Chinese construction of the Myitsone Dam on the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River for the length of his presidency, but time on that deal is up this year, and questions about the Myanmar-China friendship remain, both on and off the ping-pong table.