YANGON – A Chinese foreign affairs chief has pushed the Myanmar government to speed up construction of projects within the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, which is a part of the giant Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
In Naypyitaw, China’s State Councilor Wang Yi told Myanmar’s State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on Saturday that China was willing to work with Myanmar to promote the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) “from conceptual planning” to the construction of a “landmark project”.
Wang said infrastructure connectivity was the backbone of the CMEC and the two sides should cooperate on the ground.
“The two sides should also speed up the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone [SEZ], the China-Myanmar Border Economic Cooperation Zone and so on,” he added.
Myanmar occupies a unique geographical position in the BRI, lying at the junction of South and Southeast Asia, and between the Indian Ocean and southwestern China’s Yunnan province.
Myanmar became an official BRI partner after signing a 15-point memorandum of understanding (MOU) establishing the CMEC in September last year. The governments have agreed to collaborate on many sectors, including basic infrastructure, construction, manufacturing, agriculture, transport, finance, human resources development, telecommunications, research and technology.
The estimated 1,700-km corridor is due to connect Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, to Mandalay, Yangon and the Kyaukphyu SEZ in Rakhine State.
According to the Myanmar government, China has proposed 38 projects under the CMEC. However, Myanmar only approved nine projects at the second BRI forum in Beijing in April. So far, Myanmar has only publicized three projects: the construction of three economic cooperation zones in Kachin and Shan states; the Kyaukphyu SEZ; and the Muse-Mandalay railway project.
During Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s April visit to Beijing to attend the forum, Myanmar signed three agreements: the Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement; the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor Cooperation Plan (2019-30) and the Agreement on Formulation of the Five-Year Development Program for Economic and Trade Cooperation.
Myanmar also signed a framework agreement in November for China’s ambitious Kyaukphyu SEZ, a key project under the BRI that is expected to boost Yunnan’s development and provide China access to the Indian Ocean and allow oil imports to bypass the Strait of Malacca.
The developer, China International Trust and Investment Corporation (CITIC), has hired Canadian company HATCH to oversee the environmental and social impact assessments and a geological survey for the port project in July, not including the SEZ. However, criticism has arisen among legal observers as to whether the developers are following the proper frameworks in line with Myanmar’s Environmental Law. The law states that any mega-project requires a site-wide environmental and social impact assessment. CITIC has not responded to the criticism.
The International Committee of Jurists warned that around 20,000 people potentially faced involuntary resettlement and the minimum wage offered in the SEZ would be insufficient to restore the livelihoods of those displaced.
In October, two state-owned companies, China Railway Eryuan Engineering Group and China Railway, carried out a feasibility study for a proposed railway from Muse on the border to Mandalay, in a plan to improve connectivity across Southeast Asia. However, the watchdogs said that residents were not fully consulted about the impacts of the railway.
Wang visited Naypyitaw and Mandalay this weekend at the invitation of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. He also met President U Win Myint and Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
A bilateral statement said Wang’s top priority was to implement the CMEC in Myanmar.
China and Myanmar are soon due to celebrate 70 years of diplomatic relations, leading to speculation that Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit in January.
The trip would probably finalize the agreement of the CMEC projects, particularly the Kyaukphyu SEZ and border zones.
Despite growing wariness among the public regarding unsustainable debt to China, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said the 70th anniversary should be used to build high-level cooperation over the BRI and developing the CMEC.
The BRI is Xi’s signature foreign policy project. Unveiled in 2013, it aims to build a network of roads, railways and ports linking at least 70 countries to China across Europe, Asia and Africa.
In November 2017, Wang proposed the CMEC following a meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw. Wang said the economic corridor would enhance development and trade under the BRI.
President U Win Myint told Wang that Myanmar hoped to speed up the BRI work and promote the construction of the economic corridor and expand economic, trade, education and health cooperation.
According to the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration (DICA), China is the second-largest investor in Myanmar, accounting for nearly 26 percent of total foreign investment.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi departed Myanmar on Sunday to contest the genocide case against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands.
Referring to the Rakhine crisis, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said: “Myanmar is fully capable of dealing with the problems it faces.”
She added that Myanmar was willing to strengthen communication and coordination with China on international and regional issues.
Wang has mediated between Myanmar and Bangladesh in the Rohingya repatriation process since 2017.
In Naypyitaw, Wang said China had always been concerned about the situation in Rakhine State and was willing to continue to assist Myanmar in carrying out repatriation and resettlement and promoting economic development in Rakhine State.
Wang said China advocated the democratization of international relations and insisted all countries should treat each other on an equal footing. It opposed interference in domestic affairs and wanted to avoid international involvement in bilateral issues.
China would stand firmly with Myanmar, he added.
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