Japan, Burma Sign Investment Pact

By Elaine Kurtenbach 16 December 2013

TOKYO — Japan and Burma on Sunday signed an investment treaty to nurture closer business ties as the once secluded Southeast Asian country opens its fast-growing economy to more foreign commerce.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Burma President Thein Sein signed the deal in summit talks following a gathering of leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in Tokyo.

Japanese businesses have been eager to invest in Burma and have stepped up their activities there after Thein Sein’s reformist government came to power in 2011 after nearly 50 years of military rule. Japan’s trade ministry said the agreement is intended to provide greater protections and a stable legal environment for investors.

Attracting foreign investment and lending is crucial for aiding the expansion of Burma’s resource-rich economy. The country has significant growth potential but is burdened with an inefficient farm sector. It also lacks a manufacturing base after decades of foreign sanctions and restrictive laws under military rule.

The treaty calls for Japanese investors to receive the same protections provided to other foreign investors under international rules and prohibits the imposition of export, technology transfer or other requirements in exchange for such investments. It is also intended to improve transparency, key for a country struggling with endemic corruption.

Japan is Burma’s largest aid donor. To help clear the way for the investment treaty, Tokyo agreed to forgive about US$5.32 billion in debt owed by Burma and extended bridge loans to help clear the rest.

Abe has promised to help support Burma’s economic and political reforms with both public and private help, including fresh loans for infrastructure building and major development assistance that will support Japanese business interests in the Southeast Asian nation.

Japan had close ties with Burma before the junta took power in 1988 and Tokyo suspended grants for major projects. Japan did not impose sanctions on Burma in 2003 when the military regime put pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, unlike the United States and other Western countries, though it did scale back most business activity and cut government aid.

Japan’s investments in Burma still lag behind those of China and India, though that is fast changing. Trading companies Mitsubishi, Marubeni and Sumitomo are leading a project to develop the 2,400-hectare (5,900-acre) Thilawa Special Economic Zone, located near Rangoon, Japan’s biggest investment in Burma so far.