Guest Column

China’s Belt and Road Initiative Continues to Make Inroads in Myanmar

By Yan Naing 20 January 2021

China’s ambitious multi-billion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is knocking on Myanmar’s door after the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding to study the feasibility of linking the railways of Mandalay with Kyaukphyu, a major town in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

China’s interest in expanding the BRI into Myanmar has been clear as far back as March 2020 when it announced a $6.78 billion aid package to Myanmar for 22 projects under the Beijing-led initiative Mekong-Lancang Cooperation.

China’s relations with Myanmar over expansion of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) aspect of the BRI are, however, mired in conflict.

What started as a project to create a stable network to build infrastructure and transport goods and services between the two countries has transformed into a fanciful exercise to weaken Myanmar’s sovereignty.

This fact is supported by China’s recent plans to build a 2,000-km high-tech fence on its southern border. That project has been sharply criticized by the Myanmar government as a violation the 1961 border pact, which clearly states “no structures shall be built within 10 meters of the demarcation line by either side.” These border regions have also been cited as hotbeds of illegal activities such as the drug trade, casinos, gambling and other criminal pursuits mostly run by Chinese nationals.

These projects have also drawn flak from residents in Kyaukphyu in Rakhine State, who have complained of a complete lack of transparency by the Chinese government. They say that these projects have been set in motion without public consent and threaten to uproot the livelihoods and homes of approximately 20,000 people, according to the International Commission of Jurists.

Activists in those areas also claim China has been taking advantage of the COVID-19 situation in an effort to impede fair consultations, a move which could create further conflicts in the region over land and other connected issues.

What seemed at first to be a great developmental opportunity for Myanmar is complicated by unwanted intrusions by China along the border.

China has proposed 38 projects under the CMEC of which 29 remain to be approved by Myanmar. The more immediate concern and troubling threat is the excessive debt trap that Myanmar could fall into.

It has been said that these projects could put Myanmar into excessive debt as they would cost around $7.5 billion. Myanmar’s high-ranking officials are also concerned about investment and loans from China as they worry about both a potential debt trap and economic viability.

Myanmar can also surely learn from the debt-enslavement of Pakistan by China. Pakistan is one of the prime supporters of China’s One Belt-One Road, a key element of which is the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). That corridor has invited criticism related to increased security concerns and the fact that it crisscrosses through the disputed regions of Kashmir. All this has prompted fears of neocolonialism.

China’s BRI has fomented vilification since its inception from major countries including US, India, EU, Australia as a veiled attempt to make inroads into the sovereignty of developing and debt-ridden South-Asian nations. Therefore, president Xi Jinping’s famed “new silk road” is still far from success and rooted in controversy.

Yan Naing is the pseudonym of a regular observer on Myanmar affairs. The views expressed are his own.