Suu Kyi Commits to Japan’s ‘Tokyo Strategy 2018’ Development Plan

By Nan Lwin 12 October 2018

YANGON—Myanmar State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has promised Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that her government will help to implement his Tokyo Strategy 2018, a three-year action plan for cooperation through which Japan hopes to challenge Chinese dominance in Asia.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi made the pledge while attending the 10th Mekong-Japan summit in Tokyo this week.

“We all agreed that this has been very beneficial for both Japan and the Mekong countries. Myanmar itself … [has] benefited from over 60 bilateral projects and 100 multilateral projects as part of the Mekong-Japan cooperation,” she said at a joint press conference after the summit.

In a statement issued Friday, the Myanmar government pledged to continue its sectoral cooperation under the new strategy.

Utilizing funding from Japan’s Official Development Assistance, the “Tokyo Strategy 2018 (2019-2021)” will concentrate on three areas: vibrant and effective connectivity including industry connectivity; people-centered society, including human resource development, health care, education and legal and judicial cooperation; and environment and disaster management, including water resource management and sustainable use of fishery resources, according to the statement.

Led by the Japanese prime minster, the 10th Mekong-Japan Summit was attended by the leaders of Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. At the summit, Japan agreed to fund 150 projects in five countries in the Mekong region including Myanmar.

According to the Tokyo Strategy 2018, the leaders decided on Tuesday to implement the Mekong-Japan Cooperation projects via three action plan initiatives—Mekong-Japan Cooperation and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development; Mekong-Japan Cooperation and Free and Open Indo-Pacific; Mekong-Japan Cooperation and Ayeyarwady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS).

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe welcomes Mekong region leaders attending the 10th Mekong-Japan summit in Tokyo.

Mekong-Japan Cooperation was established in 2009 by Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Japan. It aims to achieve socio-economic development and promote connectivity in the Mekong region through the Japan Development Assistance Fund.

Mekong-Japan Cooperation and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will focus on narrowing the development gap; basic health care in rural communities; wastewater management; science and technology partnership; clean air; quality infrastructure; and cyber-security cooperation.

The statement said the leaders agreed to upgrade their current action plan from “A Decade Toward the Green Mekong” by 2020 to “Mekong-Japan Initiative for Sustainable Development Goals toward 2030” at the 11th Mekong-Japan Summit.

Free and Open Indo-Pacific

A “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” is one of the major goals of Mekong-Japan cooperation. It seeks to establish rule of law, freedom of navigation, free trade, peace and stability in the Mekong region linking the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, according to the statement.

Under the Free and Open Indo-Pacific agreement, Japan expects to implement eight major projects in Myanmar, mostly focusing on boosting economic prosperity.

There are two projects in the planning stage in Myanmar—the development of Dawei City, which focuses on enhancing regional connectivity; and construction of Hanthawaddy International Airport to help meet rising demand for international flights.

Additionally, there are five ongoing projects—infrastructure development in Thilawa area phase 1, which aims to expand the capacity of a port in the Thilawa area; technical cooperation in the training of police management, especially upgrading organizational management and investigation skills; the Mandalay port development project; and the Yangon-Mandalay Railway improvement project to upgrade the capacity of railway transportation by rehabilitating the existing railway and related facilities. Travel time from Yangon to Mandalay will be reduced from 15 hours to eight hours. Japan is also assisting capacity development via a National Single Window process and Customs modernization by introducing an automated cargo clearance system. These aim to promote trade and secure appropriate collection of duties.

Finally, according to the statement, the East West Economic Corridor improvement project phase 2 is in the survey phase; it will upgrade roads to shorten travel times and enhance the economies of surrounding areas.

A list of development projects in the Mekong region planned under the Japan-Funded Free and Open Indo-Pacific Agreement

Ayeyarwady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy

Japan is prioritizing road-upgrade projects in Myanmar under the ACMECS Master Plan 2019-2020, especially through the East West Economic Corridor Improvement project.

The ACMECS Master Plan includes a total of 54 projects in Myanmar—many were concluded in 2015-18 as part of the Tokyo Strategy 2015. Some of the major projects are the East West Economic Corridor improvement project, New Thaketa Construction project, Yangon-Mandalay Railway improvement project, Yangon Circular Railway Line Upgrading project, Yangon Mapping project and National Power Transmission project.

There are six ongoing projects—postal services capacity improvement project, an e-money system using the postal network, joint operation of telecommunications business, study tours to Japan for Myanmar’s prison officers, upgrading of the rice-breeding system and development of a comprehensive disaster resilience system.

According to the statement, a power plant construction project in Kyaukse is being planned.

Two projects are under preparatory survey—the Yangon Urban Mass Rapid Transit Construction project and the establishment of the Japan Myanmar Aung San Vocational Training Institute.

During the summit, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi held a bilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He promised more than 70 billion yen (about USD618 million) in low-interest loans for development projects to improve sewage, drainage, traffic, roads and sidewalks in Yangon and also agreed to collaborate on rural area development, small and medium enterprise promotion and resettlement of Rohingya in Rakhine State.

According to the joint statement, Japan has invested 750 billion yen during the past three years to enhance the quality of infrastructure in the Mekong region.

A map of prioritized Mekong region development projects planned under the Japan-funded Free and Open Indo-Pacific Agreement

“The Mekong region has big potential for growth and prosperity. We adopted [this strategy] to realize an affluent future together,” Abe said at the joint conference after the summit.

Experts said the Mekong countries have a huge supply of cheap labor and occupy a strategic position between the vast market of China and the emerging mega-market of India. Mekong region countries are also drawing huge amounts of Chinese investment as part of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, associate professor at the Institute of Security and International Studies in the Faculty of Political Science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, told The Irrawaddy, “Japan’s role on the Mekong mainland is critical in providing balance and a hedge for the Mekong countries vis-à-vis China.”

Experts said the Mekong area is directly under China’s shadow. The only major power in the area other than China is Japan. If Japan does not step up its geopolitical efforts, China’s dominance in the Mekong region will only grow. The U.S. has a huge and perhaps decisive role in the maritime domain, namely the South China Sea, but not in mainland Southeast Asia. Other players include Australia and New Zealand, but they cannot provide a counterweight to China.

“Japan’s new strategy for the Mekong countries is a significant geostrategic upgrade. It signifies that Japan wants to elevate its role in mainland Southeast Asia, that Japan will not forfeit this crucial sub-region to China,” Thitinan said.