YANGON—Myanmar hopes its bilateral relationship with China will continue to thrive and grow under Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitious grand infrastructure plan, the Belt and Road Initiative, Vice President U Myint Swe said at a reception to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Speaking at a reception in Naypyitaw on behalf of the Myanmar government, U Myint Swe praised the BRI, saying he expected and trusted it would bring forth positive developments for Myanmar and mutual benefits for the two countries.
He said bilateral relations had improved, and were friendly and strategically important.
Under the current government, China has become one of Myanmar’s closest friends, thanks to its position on the Rakhine crisis and the mediation role it is playing in Rohingya repatriation, as well as is collaboration on BRI projects, while the West turns away from the country due to concerns on human-rights abuses. Additionally, China has been playing a role as a broker in Myanmar’s peace process. National reconciliation is one of the major items on the agenda of the current government.
The vice president said Xi deserved praise for reviving and reintroducing the Silk Road, referring to historic trade routes between Asia and regions to the west.
Unveiled in 2013, the BRI is Xi’s signature foreign policy project. 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.
Myanmar became an official BRI partner country after signing a 15-point memorandum of understanding (MOU) establishing the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) in September. The estimated 1,700-kilometer-long corridor will connect Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan province, to Myanmar’s major economic centers—first to Mandalay in central Myanmar, and then south to Yangon and west to the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ).
According to the Myanmar government, China has proposed a total of 38 projects under the CMEC. However, Myanmar only approved nine early harvest projects at the 2nd 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 Myanmar State Counselor Daw Aung San Kyi’s April visit to Beijing to attend the forum, Myanmar signed three agreements: the “Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement,” “China-Myanmar Economic Corridor Cooperation Plan (2019-2030)” and “Agreement on Formulation of the Five-Year Development Program for Economic and Trade Cooperation.”
Last week, the Ministry of Investment and Foreign Economic Relations announced that officials from the two countries sat down in Naypyitaw for the first meeting to draw up the five-year plan.
According to the Myanmar government’s investment agency, the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration, China is Myanmar’s biggest trading partner country and was the second-biggest investor in Myanmar as of August this year.
U Myint Swe said close cooperation and friendly relations have been maintained between the two countries, adding that China, as Myanmar’s biggest trading partner and one if its biggest investors, played an important role in Myanmar-China bilateral relations.
He added that high-level visits by leaders continue to raise the mutual respect and trust between the two countries.
The vice president attended the 16th China-ASEAN Expo, Business and Investment Summit held in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region last week. During his trip, he invited more investment from China by stressing Myanmar’s strategic location and pledging that the country’s new investment law will provide more protection. Additionally, he said Myanmar offers reasonable wages and an abundant workforce for investors.
Myanmar also signed a separate framework agreement in November for China’s ambitious Kyaukphyu SEZ, a key strategic project under the BRI that is expected to boost development in China’s landlocked Yunnan province and provide China with direct access to the Indian Ocean, allowing its oil imports to bypass the Strait of Malacca.
In October, two state-owned companies, China Railway Eryuan Engineering Group (China Railway Group Ltd) and Myanmar Railways, signed an MOU on a feasibility study for the proposed railway line from Muse to Mandalay. The estimated US$9-billion (13.78-trillion-kyats) project is envisioned as a key component of the plan to improve connectivity in Southeast Asia. A final decision on construction is to be made at the end of this year.
Amid warnings from experts that BRI projects could saddle Myanmar with unsustainable debt, the government said before signing the CMEC MOU that China had agreed to adhere to three key conditions: Myanmar is allowed to seek financing from international financial institutions to implement the projects in order to avoid falling to a “debt trap”; Myanmar can invite international tenders, so as to ensure international investment in the projects; and all proposed projects must be chosen by Myanmar while creating mutual benefits for both sides.
At the reception, U Myint Swe said the Myanmar government appreciated China’s continued assistance in education, health, social, rural development, poverty alleviation and the peace process in Myanmar.
He said Myanmar highly valued and appreciated China’s positive support and assistance for Naypyitaw’s efforts to resolve the Rakhine State issue.
Myanmar hopes to receive such understanding and support from China in the future, he stressed.
Since 2017, China has officially played a mediation role between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Beijing continues to offer strong support to Myanmar, despite accusations that the treatment of the Rohingya amounts to genocide and war crimes. Last year, China voted against the UN Human Rights Council’s move to establish a body to investigate the genocide claims.