Chinese President's Upcoming Visit Seen as Bid to Gain Myanmar Leaders’ Commitment on BRI Projects

By Nan Lwin 9 January 2020

YANGON—Chinese President Xi Jinping is reportedly planning to visit Myanmar late next week, in a trip many believe is aimed at sending a signal regarding the country’s importance to China’s strategic ambitions in the Indian Ocean, while shoring up support for Xi’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) among leaders in Myanmar, which is slated to host some of the scheme’s key projects.

If the trip goes ahead, Xi would be the first Chinese president to visit China’s southern neighbor in nearly two decades.

With China and Myanmar due to celebrate 70 years of diplomatic relations this year, preparations for Xi’s trip have been under way for some time. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Myanmar State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi met in early December in Naypyitaw to discuss preparations.

According to government sources, Xi is expected to visit Naypyitaw, the capital of Myanmar, on Jan. 17-18. During his trip, the two sides are expected to sign dozens of agreements covering the construction of the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) and border economic cooperation zones, road upgrade projects, promotion of trade relations, and social and economic development assistance, according to Myanmar government sources.

On Wednesday, Union Minister for Commerce U Than Myint told the media that Xi will visit Myanmar soon, saying that during his trip an agreement would be signed between the two countries in which China would ease restrictions on imports of products from Myanmar.

“It will enhance trade relations with China,” he said.

It will be Xi’s second visit to Myanmar. He visited the country in 2009 as vice president. During that trip, China and Myanmar signed 16 memorandums of understanding (MOUs) on technical cooperation, the implementation of hydropower projects, the China-Myanmar Oil and Gas twin pipeline project, and the Kyaukphyu SEZ. However, the Kyaukphyu project was delayed due to a disagreement over the share ratio.

Daw Khin Khin Kyaw Kyee, head of the China desk at the Institute of Strategy and Policy (ISP)-Myanmar, told The Irrawaddy that during the trip she expects the Chinese president will push Myanmar to gear up for the implementation of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor projects (CMEC).

Myanmar joined the BRI in 2018 by signing a 15-point MOU establishing the CMEC. Utilizing the interconnected transportation infrastructure of China and Myanmar, the 1,700-kilometer CMEC will run from Kunming in China’s Yunnan Province through Shan State’s Muse to Mandalay in central Myanmar, and then branch out to Yangon and the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in western Rakhine State.

The BRI is Xi’s signature foreign policy project. Unveiled in 2013, it is also known as the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road. The project aims to build a network of roads, railroads and shipping lanes linking at least 70 countries from China to Europe passing through Central Asia, the Middle East and Russia, fostering trade and investment.

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 last year. So far, Myanmar has only made public three projects: the construction of three economic cooperation zones in Kachin and Shan states; the Kyaukphyu SEZ; and the Muse-Mandalay railway project.

“Planned projects like the Kyaukphyu SEZ, Muse-Mandalay Railway and Irrawaddy Economic Belt indicate that China is keeping alive its strategic vision for Myanmar, particularly [projects that provide] access to the Indian Ocean,” Daw Khin Khin Kyaw Kyee said.

“Xi’s trip will fit into China’s vision to achieve a presence in the Indian Ocean. That is the reason they want Myanmar’s deep commitment to the BRI projects,” she said.

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 landlocked Yunnan province.

In November 2018 Myanmar successfully renegotiated the share ratio agreement and signed a framework agreement for the Kyaukphyu SEZ, a key strategic component of the CMEC. The project is expected to boost development in Yunnan province and provide China with direct access to the Indian Ocean, allowing its oil imports to bypass the Strait of Malacca.

The developer, China International Trust and Investment Corporation (CITIC), 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.

A Chinese state-owned company carried out a feasibility study for a proposed railway that will link China’s Kunming with Muse and Mandalay, two of Myanmar’s economic centers. The company had hired a local firm to carry out the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), but watchdogs said residents were not fully consulted about the impacts of the railway.

Many observers are critical of Myanmar’s tilt toward China as the West turns away due to the Rohingya crisis in Rakhine State. Amid severe pressure on Myanmar from the international community, China has shown support for Naypyitaw over the Rakhine crisis. Experts say the two countries’ diplomatic ties have reached new heights under the National League for Democracy (NLD) government.

Ethics Affairs and China expert U Maung Maung Soe told The Irrawaddy, “China wants to show their relations with Myanmar are good. It [Xi’s trip] also shows they will forge even closer relations with the NLD government in the future.”

Xi is demonstrating that China will stand firmly with Myanmar, despite criticism of the latter from the international community, he added.

During his trip in December, Foreign Minister Wang told Daw Aung San Suu Kyi that China is willing to work with Myanmar to promote the CMEC from the planning stage to construction of the landmark project.

Wang said infrastructure connectivity is the backbone of the CMEC, and the two sides should cooperate on the ground. He also pushed the Myanmar State Counselor to speed up implementation of the Kyaukphyu SEZ, the China-Myanmar Border Economic Cooperation Zone and other projects.

Daw Khin Khin Kyaw Kyee said China-Myanmar relations will be closer than ever if even half the CMEC projects actually get off the ground, adding that they would enhance bilateral ties economically and socially.

Despite Myanmar’s commitment to a non-aligned foreign policy, it is unavoidable that Myanmar’s stance toward China will grow more favorable due to the CMEC projects, she stressed.

CMEC backbone projects like the Kyaukphyu SEZ and Muse-Mandalay railway have attracted local criticism due to a lack of transparency on the part of the Myanmar government. Despite the criticism, 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.

“When it comes to China-backed projects, we need a strategic vision,” Daw Khin Khin Kyaw Kyee said.

“China has a clear vision of what they want from Myanmar. The Myanmar government should have a clear vision of what we want from China, what advantages we expect from the projects and how we will implement them in such a way as to minimize the negative effects,” she said.

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