Myanmar Military Chief Backs BRI Projects in Talks With China’s Xi

By Nan Lwin 11 April 2019

YANGON—China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) includes a host of projects that could benefit Myanmar, military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing told Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Wednesday, adding that Myanmar’s military was ready to cooperate on implementing them.

While the BRI is beginning to face resistance from a number of countries due to fears of a “debt trap”, Sen-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing said during a meeting with Xi at the Great Hall of the People that he believed it would be successful.

Xi’s signature foreign policy, the BRI is a grand vision to revive the historic Silk Road trade route and create a “21st-Century Maritime Silk Road”. These would create a network of trade routes from China to Europe passing through Central Asia, the Middle East and Russia. Unveiled in 2013, the BRI will ultimately encompass nearly 70 countries and two-thirds of the world’s population.

After signing the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) in September last year, Myanmar officially became a partner in the BRI.

The senior general said the majority of Myanmar citizens live in rural areas and improving their socioeconomic status would require developing the nation’s economy first. This was the reason he requested support for developing Myanmar’s economic opportunities.

The senior general is visiting Beijing on a goodwill visit at the invitation of General Li Zuocheng, a member of China’s Central Military Commission and chief of the Joint Staff Department. During the visit Sen-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing has held talks with leaders of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and toured training schools, factories and other significant places. The visit comes two weeks ahead of State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s scheduled visit to Myanmar’s northern neighbor to attend the second BRI forum in late April.

Nearly three dozen national leaders will attend the forum. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to negotiate agreements on at least six projects as part of the CMEC agreement. During her bilateral meeting with Xi, the State Counselor will likely discuss some of the more controversial Chinese projects in Myanmar, including the suspended US$3.6-billion (5.43 trillion kyats) Myitsone hydropower  project in Kachin State.

During his meeting with the military chief, Xi said the militaries, political parties, governments and peoples of the two countries enjoy deep relationships, with military relations in particular having grown noticeably closer.

He said Myanmar was facing a lot of external pressure, but the years of effort by various leaders had led to visible progress for the country.

“China has always supported Myanmar and will continue to do so,” Xi said.

China would increase military cooperation between the two countries and strive to discover solutions to common problems, he added.

Myanmar occupies a strategic geographical position in the BRI, lying at the junction of South Asia and Southeast Asia, and between the Indian Ocean and southwestern China’s landlocked Yunnan province.

In Myanmar, the CMEC will stretch for 1,700 km, starting in China’s Yunnan Province and going through Myanmar’s major economic cities—Mandalay in central Myanmar and the commercial capital of Yangon—and reaching the coast at the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Rakhine State. Under the CMEC, Myanmar has also signed an MoU for the Kyaukphyu deep-sea port, a potential hub for China that would give it direct access to the Indian Ocean and allow its oil imports to bypass the Strait of Malacca. It also serves Beijing’s goal of developing landlocked Yunnan.

Despite warnings from critics that the project could burden Myanmar with unsustainable debts and provoke more armed conflict in the project areas, Myanmar has signed an MoU to begin studying a proposed Muse-Mandalay high-speed railway.

The railway could become a lifeline for China-Myanmar trade. Muse sits on Myanmar’s border with Yunnan, and is the largest trade portal between the two nations, while Mandalay is central Myanmar’s commercial center and the country’s second-largest city.

In Yangon, the multi-billion-dollar New Yangon City project is a part of the CMEC plan. The two sides have also agreed to implement three economic cooperation zones in Kachin and Shan states.

Snr-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing has also held meetings with top Chinese leaders including Song Tao, head of the International Liaison Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and General Wei Fenghe, minister of national defense and a member of the Central Military Commission. He has visited a PLA training school, observed military simulation training and visited a center featuring experimental equipment support technology.