In Myanmar, Concerns That China’s Help on COVID-19 Comes With Strings Attached

By Nan Lwin 24 April 2020

YANGON—On a scorching hot day early this month, a Boeing jet from China Eastern Airlines touched down at Yangon International Airport. On board were a team of 12 medics from China’s Yunnan Province and more than 4 million yuan (807.2 million kyats) worth of laboratory equipment and medical supplies. The Chinese team was beginning a 14-day mission to share its experience, train medics and donate the urgently needed supplies to Myanmar, which at that time had reported 22 COVID-19 patients and three related deaths.

The Chinese specialists were welcomed by Myanmar Health and Sports Minister Dr. Myint Htwe, who told the media at the airport that, “I especially thank the team for bringing the laboratory materials, which can be used to test many people.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic first flared up in Myanmar in late March, the country responded with quarantines, imposing stay-home periods, and by promoting social distancing and other measures. However, due to decades of underinvestment in public health, Myanmar lacks crucial medical supplies like test kits and ventilators, as well as the technical capacity to ensure that an adequate number of people are tested—especially during a pandemic such as the coronavirus. As of Friday, the country had 139 confirmed cases with five deaths.

Medical supplies for use in the fight against COVID-19 provided by the Chinese government are seen at Yangon International Airport in early April. / Myo Min Soe / The Irrawaddy

As Myanmar struggled to cope with the public health crisis, the offer of assistance from the neighboring country came as something of a relief, as evidenced by the presence of the Union health minister at the airport to personally greet the team and thank China.

But the medical team and planeload of supplies that landed in early April was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to China’s assistance to Myanmar’s fight against COVID-19.

Since Myanmar reported its first COVID-19 cases in late March, the Chinese government and many Chinese companies have sent a flood donations ranging from mobile toilets and surgical masks to test kits and ventilators.

In contrast to China’s attempts to push forward its huge Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects—most of which have met with local resistance—in Myanmar, China’s assistance in fighting COVID-19 has been cautiously welcomed. However, some in the country are wondering if their big neighbor’s generosity comes with strings attached.

U Maw Htun Aung, Myanmar country manager of the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI), warned that Myanmar would likely have to pay for the assistance in the long run.

“China seems to be hoping that relations with Myanmar will improve and that there will be no more obstacles to their investments due to the help they are providing now.”

Chinese medical experts arrive at Yangon International Airport on April 8. / Chinese Embassy in Yangon

Friend in need?

When the coronavirus hit Myanmar in March, countries in Asia that could normally be counted on for assistance in times of crisis were unable to help, as they were struggling to cope with outbreaks of their own.

China stepped in immediately, despite reeling from the toll the virus was taking at home. In late March, the Chinese government dispatched medical supplies to Myanmar twice, sending thousands of test kits, personal protective equipment (PPE), N95 masks and millions of surgical masks. Interestingly, the government of China’s Yunnan province donated 60,000 surgical masks, specifying that Myanmar authorities should distribute at least 14,000 masks each in Yangon and Mandalay regions.

Why Yangon and Mandalay? Both cities are strategic hubs on the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), which forms part of the BRI. Under an agreement signed in 2018, the corridor will start at Yunnan’s capital Kunming and run through Myanmar’s major economic cities—Mandalay in central Myanmar and the commercial capital of Yangon—and end on the coast at the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Rakhine State.

In its latest donation on Wednesday, the Chinese Embassy gave a total of 30 ventilators to the Ministry of Health and Sports (MOHS) and the Myanmar military, saying the equipment would increase Myanmar’s capacity to cope with medical emergencies during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Chinese companies—from giant construction and energy companies to agriculture firms with business concessions in Myanmar—have not been left behind, either. Among them are State Power Investment Corporation (SPIC), the company behind the suspended Myitsone dam and other controversial hydropower projects in Kachin State. According to the Myanmar Ministry of Foreign Affairs, SPIC donated 1 million yuan worth of medical supplies to fight COVID-19 and 20 mobile toilets.

Yangon Region Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein receives medical supplies from the Shenzhen Industrial Park, in Yangon. / Chinese Embassy in Yangon

Myanmar Wanbao Mining Copper Ltd. and Myanmar Yangtze Copper Ltd., which run the country’s largest—and most controversial—mining projects in upper Myanmar, donated surgical masks and medical supplies.

Yunnan Energy Investment Group (YEIG) and Union Resources & Engineering Co., Ltd. (UREC), the companies that won a tender to implement the US$2.5-billion (3.57-trillion-kyat) Mee Lin Gyaing LNG power plant in Ayeyarwady Region, the country’s biggest power project, also donated five ventilators to the MOHS.

Notably, the construction giant China State Construction Engineering Corporation Ltd. donated surgical masks and hand sanitizers to both the Union Ministry of Construction and the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC). The company was involved in a US$500-million (714-billion-kyat) mixed-use project in Yangon that was terminated by the Myanmar military after the local partner in the joint venture was accused of breaching the terms of the deal.

Other donors include the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC)’s Yangon branch, a key facilitator of financial cooperation between the two countries for CMEC projects; and China Southern Power Grid Yunnan International Co. Ltd, a state-owned company with plans to sell 1,000 MW of electricity to Myanmar through the cross-border interconnection project.

In the country’s north, near the Chinese border, the Kachin State government received 400,000 yuan worth of PPE, surgical masks and N95 masks and infrared thermometers from authorities in Baoshan, a prefecture-level city in western Yunnan Province. Companies affiliated with the city’s authorities signed an agreement with the Kachin government to build the massive Myitkyina Economic Development Zone (MEDZ) in the state, as a part of the CMEC.

Officials from the Kachin State government and Chinese company SPIC pose for a photo during a donation ceremony in Myitkyina. / Kachin State government

Propaganda and promises

The outpouring of supplies to Myanmar by Chinese government agencies and private companies has been accompanied by a flood of promotions on the Facebook page of the Chinese Embassy announcing the donations.

In February, Myanmar government newspapers carried an op-ed by Chinese Ambassador to Myanmar Chen Hai boasting of the Chinese government’s success in battling the disease and proclaiming that while the epidemic is temporary, China and Myanmar’s efforts to build a shared future will be long-lasting.

Behind China’s assistance campaign, however, observers see an attempt to regain lost trust and to improve China’s image in the eyes of the Myanmar public.

Despite the countries’ shared border, a majority of Myanmar people are wary of the Beijing government, recalling the very close ties it enjoyed with the military regime that ruled Myanmar with an iron fist until 2010. And as the huge BRI projects get under way in the country, they worry that China is exploiting Myanmar’s natural resources without any concern for the fate of the local population.

Ethnic affairs and China analyst U Maung Maung Soe said Chinese humanitarian aid has political goals, and is always intended to boost the country’s influence in Myanmar, while Chinese companies’ efforts are part of a plan to boost their image in the country.

“China is seeking both political and economic gain by promising economic support and delivering aid to Myanmar in a time of crisis. They know that Myanmar needs both,” he said.

At the same time, questions have been raised as to whether China is using this period of global uncertainty, in which the US, Japan and other economic powers are battling the pandemic and struggling to cope with its social and economic fallout, to assert itself and resume its role as a source of support and strength for the governments of BRI countries, including Myanmar.

Daw Khin Khin Kyaw Kyee, the head of the China desk at the Institute for Strategy and Policy (ISP), said the donations enhance the image of China as a benign power and a responsible member of the global community, while allowing Chinese companies to promote their profile and image in Myanmar.

“This aid to some extent can help China to expand its political influence in the recipient countries,” she stressed.

The Chinese Embassy in Yangon didn’t reply to The Irrawaddy’s requests for comment on Friday.

A Chinese Embassy official stands in front of medical supplies provided by the Jack Ma Foundation and Alibaba Foundation at a ceremony in Yangon. / Chinese Embassy in Yangon

Future of BRI projects

With China itself still reeling from the economic impact of the coronavirus, however, there has been considerable discussion about what the future holds for its BRI projects in Myanmar, with a number of international think tanks now forecasting that the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to delay some of the projects.

Attempting to counter this narrative, the Chinese government published an advertorial in the popular Myanmar newspaper 7-Day on March 11, claiming that some media outlets and politicians were happy to see China afflicted by the outbreak, and accusing them of making mischief between China and other countries by attacking its BRI plans and claiming that China is facing economic recession. The article assured Myanmar readers that the COVID-19 pandemic would not deter China from proceeding with the BRI.

In late March, Ambassador Chen told The Myanmar Times that China would support Myanmar economically and continue its infrastructure push in the country despite the setbacks caused by COVID-19.

Daw Khin Khin Kyaw Kyee told The Irrawaddy that as the BRI is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s pet project to put China back at the center of the international stage, any backlash against the initiative was likely to be perceived as an attack on Xi’s image and on China’s national pride.

“So, it can be expected that China will reject the criticism and actively promote the BRI at least [in terms of] narrative and policy. Of course, to what extent it can implement it in this tough time is another matter,” she said.

However, observers of the BRI raise another concern—whether Myanmar will relax its scrutiny when it comes to approving future BRI projects in the country out of gratitude to China for its assistance in fighting COVID-19.

U Maw Htun Aung of NRGI said the answer was “likely not”, because the assistance is in the form of humanitarian aid, and there should be no special thanks to China, as it is essentially helping to solve a problem that started at home.

The country manager remained cautiously optimistic, while adding that it remained to be seen how changes in a post-COVID-19 world order will affect Myanmar’s decision-making on BRI projects. He said whether or not the Southeast Asian country feels the need to bow to Chinese pressure will depend on whether currently powerful countries see their influence on the world stage wane as a result of the pandemic.

“So far, I have to say, the National League for Democracy government has been very careful with Chinese investment,” he said.

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