China Seeks Myanmar's Assurances on Moving BRI Projects Ahead; Offers Aid for Rakhine

By Nan Lwin 2 September 2020

YANGON—During his recent visit, China’s top diplomat sought reassurances on the implementation of his country’s ambitious backbone infrastructure projects in Myanmar and announced a 200-million-yuan (39.33-billion-kyat) grant for western Rakhine State.

Amid a spike in COVID-19 cases in Myanmar, Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC)’s Central Committee and director of the committee’s Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission, made a stop in Naypyitaw, the capital of Myanmar, before heading to Europe. Yang, who is widely considered the highest-ranking diplomat within the CPC, met separately with Myanmar State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint on Tuesday.

In his meetings with the leaders, the senior foreign policy official urged Myanmar to maintain its efforts to implement China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects, for which agreements were reached during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Myanmar in early January.

During Xi’s trip, the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ), New Yangon City urban development and Cross-Border Economic Cooperation Zone projects were branded as the three pillars of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), itself a part of the BRI. Xi also called for both sides to deepen “result-oriented Belt and Road cooperation” and move from “the conceptual stage to concrete planning and implementation” of building the CMEC.

The Kyaukphyu deep seaport is a planned trade hub that would give China direct access to the Indian Ocean and allow its oil imports to bypass the Strait of Malacca, between peninsular Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. In Yangon, the multibillion-dollar New Yangon City project is also a part of the CMEC plan, though the government recently decided to reduce the size and cost of the first phase. The two sides also agreed to implement three economic cooperation zones along their shared border in Kachin and Shan states.

In January, the countries signed a concession agreement and shareholders’ agreement for the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone, a letter of intent on the New Yangon City project, and a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to accelerate negotiations around the Ruili-Muse Cross-Border Economic Cooperation Zone. However, none of the projects have yet moved to the actual implementation phase.

The head of the China desk at the Institute for Strategy and Policy (ISP), Daw Khin Khin Kyaw Kyee, said, “As the election is getting nearer, his trip is aimed at checking the status of China’s strategic projects in Myanmar. Before the election, China wants to make sure the CMEC projects get off the ground.”

Myanmar and Chinese officials hold a bilateral meeting on Tuesday in Naypyitaw, the capital of Myanmar. / Myanmar State Counselor’s Office / Facebook

Despite the agreements signed during the Chinese president’s trip to Myanmar, the projects that are most important to China have not been able to move forward, Daw Khin Khin Kyaw Kyee said.

“In other countries, the implementation of BRI projects normally moved forward very quickly. Here, the government is very cautious and the process is still slow. That is the major reason [Yang] came to Myanmar,” she added.

In a statement, the Myanmar State Counselor’s Office said Yang announced the provision of a 200-million-yuan grant to the Myanmar government for uplifting the livelihoods of people in Rakhine State.

During the meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Yang reaffirmed China’s commitment to lend its continued support to Myanmar’s initiatives in addressing the challenges in Rakhine, to facilitate the Rohingya repatriation process, and to promote closer cooperation and coordination in the international arena.

Myanmar’s State Counselor expressed her deep appreciation to China for its consistent support at multilateral meetings, according to the statement.

Since 2017, China has officially played a mediation role between Myanmar and Bangladesh. More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh since August 2017 to escape military operations that the UN has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” The Myanmar military denies the allegations, insisting the crackdown was a response to coordinated attacks on security posts in Rakhine State by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.

Despite allegations that the treatment of the Rohingya and the military’s operations amount to genocide and war crimes, Beijing has continued to offer strong support to Myanmar.

The two also sides agreed to collaborate on the maintenance of peace and stability along the border, to combat illegal activities including gambling at the border, and to enhance cooperation in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. China also vowed to provide continued constructive assistance to the Myanmar government’s national reconciliation and peace processes.

Moreover, the State Counselor and the Chinese diplomat discussed China’s debt service suspension for Myanmar to ease the impact of COVID-19 on the country’s economy. However, no details of this discussion were released.

Yang also met with the commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, on Wednesday, but neither side has yet announced details of that discussion.

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