New Chinese Ambassador Vows to Seek ‘Practical Cooperation’ with Myanmar on BRI Projects

By Nan Lwin 19 June 2019

YANGON—China’s new ambassador to Myanmar said he would push for deeper “practical cooperation” on Beijing’s grand infrastructure projects in the country while working to advance bilateral relations.

One day after President U Win Myint accepted the credentials of Ambassador Chen Hai in Naypyitaw, the Chinese Embassy issued a statement on Wednesday regarding their discussion in the Credentials Hall at the Presidential Palace.

Chen said China and Myanmar currently maintain good relations but said he expected many new opportunities to improve it would arise.

The 20th Chinese ambassador to Myanmar vowed to advance mutual trust between the two countries and deepen “practical cooperation” on the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), under which it plans to implement more than three dozen projects, including mega-infrastructure projects, in Myanmar.

Unveiled in 2013, the BRI is Chinese President Xi Jinping’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 officially joined as an official BRI partner country after signing a 15-point memorandum of understanding (MOU) establishing the 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 checkpoints—first to Mandalay in central Myanmar, and then east 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 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.

President U Win Myint vowed to improve relations with China and thanked Beijing for its support on Myanmar’s peace process and the Rakhine issue, according to the statement.

Myanmar will actively push to complete the CMEC, the statement cited him as saying.

Myanmar will also strengthen the China-Myanmar strategic partnership for the benefit of people in both countries, he said.

Under the CMEC MOU, Myanmar agrees to cooperate with China on industry, transportation, energy, agriculture, the “digital silk road”, finance, tourism, environmental protection, people-to-people exchanges, science and technology, personnel training, water resources and flood prevention and control.

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 two cities are envisioned as key hubs in a plan to improve connectivity in Southeast Asia. Myanmar officials are currently reviewing the study and the 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 permanent secretary of the Ministry of Planning and Finance, U Tun Tun Naing, revealed for the first time last month that before signing the CMEC MOU, his government discussed three key points with China to avoid falling into a “debt trap” and to ensure that the project benefits both countries.

Those are that Myanmar must be allowed to seek financing from international financial institutions to implement the projects; that the government be allowed to invite international tenders, so as to ensure international investment in the projects; and that the proposed projects must be chosen by Myanmar while creating mutual benefits for both sides.

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