Chinese Foreign Minister Visits Myanmar to Speed Up Belt and Road Projects

China’s State Councilor Wang Yi visited Myanmar to spur on the development of projects related to the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). The CMEC is a part of China’s expanding Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which seeks to create new infrastructure across Eurasia on a massive scale.

Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi met with Myanma State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw, Myanmar recently, where he said China’s goal was to take the CMEC, “from conceptual planning” to a “landmark project”.

China is eager to begin construction on infrastructure projects in Myanmar, and Wang Yi stated that connectivity is vital to making the CMEC a reality in the real world. “The two sides should also speed up the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone [SEZ], the China-Myanmar Border Economic Cooperation Zone and so on,” Wang added to his commentary.

Myanmar is located between China’s Yunnan province and the Indian Ocean and could help the BRI to create unique logistical advantages for both nations. The nation became a partner in the BRI after it signed a 15-point memorandum of understanding (MOU) in 2018, but construction in Myanmar has been slow.

China’s Big Goals in Myanmar

According to the government of Myanmar, China proposed 38 projects as a part of the CMEC, and both governments have agreed to collaborate in the areas of basic infrastructure, construction, agriculture, manufacturing, transport, finance, telecommunications, human resources development, and new technology.

Myanmar has only approved nine projects so far, and this may lead to some frustration on the part of China.

The nine projects were approved at the second BRI forum in April, which was held in Beijing. While Myanmar has approved nine of the 38 BRI projects, it has only promoted three publicly. Among them are the Construction of three economic cooperation zones in Kachin and Shan, the Muse-Mandalay railway project, and the Kyaukphyu SEZ.

China wants the 1,700-km corridor is to connect Kunming, which the capital of Yunnan, China, to Mandalay, Yangon and the Kyaukphyu SEZ in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi did sign three agreements when he visited Beijing last April.

The Myanma State Counselor agreed to the terms of the Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement between the two nations, as well as the Agreement on Formulation of the Five-Year Development Program for Economic and Trade Cooperation, and the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor Cooperation Plan (2019-30).

Also, Myanmar has agreed to a framework for China’s ambitious Kyaukphyu SEZ, which would give China direct access to the Indian Ocean. Oil imports could then bypass the Strait of Malacca, which gives China a great deal of optionality when it comes to energy logistics.

Locals and Watchdogs are Concerned

Although China International Trust and Investment Corporation (CITIC) has retained Canadian company HATCH to administer environmental and social impact assessments, as well as a geological survey for the port, there are some concerns over the impact of the development. HATCH is only working on the due diligence for the port, and not the entirety of the SEZ.

Legal observers have raised criticism over the legal frameworks that are being used to develop some of the projects, and some have questioned whether Myanmar’s Environmental Law is being adhered to. Any mega must provide a site-wide environmental and social impact assessment, but CITIC has ignored calls for comment.

The International Committee of Jurists estimates that 20,000 people in Myanmar will potentially be displaced by the project, and that minimum wage jobs granted in the SEZ won’t be enough to offset lost livelihoods.

A feasibility study for another Chinese project, the proposed railway from Muse to Mandalay, was undertaken by two Chinese state-owned entities, and legal watchdogs claim that locals that would be affected by the new rail lines weren’t fully consulted. The new rail lines would improve China’s access to Myanmar, but they would also impact many people.

A Worrisome 70th Anniversary

State Councilor Wang Yi also met with President U Win Myint and Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and issued a bilateral statement that said the top priority of the Chinese State Councilor was to implement the CMEC. The two nations are going to celebrate 70 years of diplomatic relations, and some speculate that Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit early next year.

Although many in Myanmar are worried about the substantial and growing, debt to China, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi commented that the upcoming anniversary should be leveraged to create high-level cooperation on BRI projects, and pushing the CMEC forward. The BRI is vitally important to Chinese President Xi, who is dedicated to expanding China’s position on the world stage.

The Directorate of Investment and Company Administration (DICA) states that China is the second-largest investor in Myanmar, and accounts for almost 26% of total foreign investment. State Councilor Wang originally proposed the CMEC in 2017, after a meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Rakhine Crisis is Ongoing

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was forced to leave State Councilor Wang Yi, in order to travel to the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands, to contest the genocide case against Myanmar. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi commented,“Myanmar is fully capable of dealing with the problems it faces,” referring to the Rakhine crisis, and allegations of genocide.

State Councilor Wang has worked to mediate the crisis between Myanmar and Bangladesh since 2017. Wang commented that China is willing to continue helping Myanmar in Rakhine State with resettlement and repatriation efforts, as well as economic development.

Wang also stated that all nations should treat each other fairly, and in Myanmar, the democratization of international relations should be advocated. According to Wang, China opposes interfering in the domestic affairs of another nation and would stand with Myanmar.

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