Editorial

Pro-Myanmar Policies Must Guide Govt’s Handling of China’s BRI Projects

By The Irrawaddy 7 January 2021

Myanmar is preparing to welcome Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi this month. He will be the first high-level foreign official to visit the country since the National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide election victory in November.

It is believed Wang’s visit is intended to show support for the upcoming second term of the NLD government, while pushing it to speed up construction of projects delayed by the pandemic under the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), which is a part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

China and Myanmar earlier agreed to begin implementing some of the projects this year, but the public, including residents of the ethnic states, still have little information about them. There is great concern that a lack of proper engagement with the public by authorities will lead to protests against these Chinese projects once they get under way.

The Chinese are pressing ahead despite the grave concern in the ethnic states and the regions where the BRI-related CMEC projects are proposed.

Wang is no stranger to Myanmar; on his last trip, he accompanied Xi during the Chinese president’s visit to Naypyitaw in early January last year.

During that visit, Myanmar and China signed nearly three dozen MOUs, agreements, exchange letters and protocols.

The Chinese president has branded the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in western Rakhine State, the China-Myanmar Border Economic Cooperation Zone in Shan and Kachin states, and the New Yangon City project in Myanmar’s commercial capital as three pillars of the CMEC, and called on both sides to deepen result-oriented BRI cooperation.

Even in his congratulatory statement on the NLD’s election victory in November, Xi pushed Myanmar to make joint efforts with China in various fields under the BRI.

The government has been slow to inform the public about these projects, but the Chinese won’t wait.

Despite Xi’s urging, Myanmar has taken a cautious approach. It is understood that none of the CMEC projects has actually reached the implementation stage.

The government has said it will implement the projects after verifying that they are commercially viable and in line with the country’s development plan. How long will this take? Years?

It has long been the view in Naypyitaw that Myanmar should be pragmatic in dealing with China.

Anti-dam and anti-war graffiti are seen on a riverbank near Myitsone, Kachin State. / The Irrawaddy

Now, however, the argument is that the government here knows what is best for the country and its citizens, and that Myanmar should be the one proposing projects to China, rather than the other way around. At present, it seems Myanmar passively waits for China to propose mega projects, and then renegotiates more favorable terms and conditions.

The Myanmar government’s first task should be to listen to the grievances and concerns of the public, including ethnic minorities. Why? Because these projects must benefit the country and the people.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative is a global infrastructure scheme of extraordinary ambition in terms of its scope, and the Myanmar government has officially and publicly committed to participating in it.

Across the region, however, BRI projects have raised concerns due to the potential for debt trap diplomacy, their implications for national sovereignty, environmental issues and security risks.

From China’s perspective, there is no doubt that the BRI represents the fulfillment of a great dream, but how many in Myanmar can expect to share in the benefits of this dream? There is no black-and-white answer.

Let’s be clear: the BRI and CMEC projects will give China increased control over Myanmar’s wealth along the economic corridor—such a strategy allows China to exert economic control without ever having to resort to military coercion.

Myanmar, like most countries, whether they are in Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central Asia or Europe, welcomes investment not only from China but from many sources. But there has been growing pushback against the BRI projects across the globe. Besides the concerns mentioned above, many countries are seeking to establish a working relationship with Beijing that more fully takes into account their own national interests.

Myanmar has a very complex relationship with China, which remains its biggest trading partner and a powerful neighbor. But Myanmar is not a puppet of China or any country, and does not serve the interest of any foreign country.

The government’s policies and its vision for the country should put Myanmar first. They should be based on the national interest and their aim should be to benefit Myanmar citizens.

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