China Urges Progress on Myanmar Belt & Road Projects, Backs Peace Efforts

FM Wang Yi was briefed on a ceasefire in Rakhine state, a key location for Chinese investments.
2021-01-12
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China Urges Progress on Myanmar Belt & Road Projects, Backs Peace Efforts Chinese FM Wang Yi meets with Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, Jan 10, 2021.
Myanmar State Counsellor's Office

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi voiced support for Myanmar’s peace talks with ethnic armed groups and called for faster progress on major Chinese-led infrastructure projects in its Southeast Asian neighbor, statements and reports from the two countries said Tuesday.

Wang, the first foreign minister to visit Myanmar since Nov. 8 elections returned Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) to office for a second five-year term, brought donations of COVID-19 medical supplies to Myanmar, his first stop on a tour that also includes Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines.

China’s top diplomat met with civilian and military leaders, discussing the pace of progress and security of the Myanmar-China corridor, a key part of multi-billion-dollar Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of trade-facilitating infrastructure projects, Chinese state media said.

Meeting Monday with State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, Wang conveyed congratulations from the Chinese leadership for her re-election and said Beijing is ready to implement big-ticket projects under the BRI, agreed during a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping a year earlier.

“Viewing the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) as the flagship project under the Belt and Road Initiative, the Chinese foreign minister said China is also willing to speed up the construction of the western, northern, and eastern ends of the CMEC,” state TV said in an account of the visit.

Wang’s aim is “to promote an early implementation of the Kyaukpyu deep-sea port, the China-Myanmar Border Economic Cooperation Zone and the New Yangon City,” state-run CGTN reported.

The CMEC, which includes plans for a railway and gas and oil pipelines, bisects the northern part of the country and ends at the $1.3 billion deep-sea port at Kyaukpyu in southern Rakhine state along the coast of the Bay of Bengal.

In the northern part of Rakhine state, near Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh, fighting between Myanmar’s military and the rebel Arakan Army (AA) has raged for two years, killing about 300 civilians, injuring more than 600 others, and displacing about 230,000 people.

The two sides in the Rakhine war have maintained a ceasefire since the Nov. 8 elections and held a series of behind-the-scenes contacts.

On Tuesday, Wang and the military commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, held an hour-long discussion mostly focusing on peace issues, a Myanmar spokesman said.

“They discussed the current negotiations between the military and the AA to maintain the ceasefire that has been in place since the end of the election, and ways to prevent further armed combat,” Major General Zaw Min Tun of the military’s information committee told RFA.

Peace talks role for China?

With a strong interest in stable access to the Indian Ocean from China’s landlocked southwestern provinces through the corridor, Beijing historically has played a role in dealings between Myanmar's army and ethnic armed groups based in several states along the border.

Now Myanmar’s second-biggest foreign investor after Singapore, China has clout that could help advance the peace process, according to Pe Than, a member of parliament and a leader of the Arakan National Party (ANP), which represents the interests of the Rakhine people.

“China can have influence not only on Rakhine state but also on all of Myanmar, including the ethnic armed groups, in terms of politics, economics and military,” said Pe Than.

“China can fairly and reasonably pressure, mediate or facilitate the negotiations between the military and AA such that the peace process will be advanced. So we will have peace in our Rakhine state,” he said. 

Analysts said that Wang’s visit to Myanmar shows that getting and keeping BRI projects on track are important to Beijing.  

“Progress on the Kyaukpyu deep seaport project has stalled even after they updated the project contract. Lots of work is needed for BRI. It is possible that China wants to tell the Myanmar government to prioritize moving forward with these projects,” Minh Zaw Oo, executive director of Myanmar’s Institute of Peace and Security told RFA.

Political analyst Than Soe Naing said Myanmar is of strategic importance for its BRI projects.

“China is visiting various countries to see if there are changes in its OBOR projects in the Asia-Pacific region,” Than Soe Naing said, using the acronym for former name of the Chinese initiative, “One Belt One Road.”

“So, China is trying to push Myanmar to speed up the OBOR projects, such as the construction of the railway connecting Mandalay and Muse, the economic zone in Rakhine state, and so on.”

Wang arrived a day after Myanmar’s Ministry of Transportation and Communications and the China Railway Eryuan Engineering Group signed an agreement for a railway to connect the Kyaukpyu SEZ to Mandalay in a rail route that will eventually connect Myanmar to Beijing by way of Kunming. railway.

“Mainly this project will give China a new outlet to the sea. This rail line will run parallel with an existing gas pipeline and it will be easier for authorities to ensure the security of the pipeline,” political analyst Ye Tun told RFA.

Friction over earlier projects

Ye Tun said the railway would connect Kyaukpyu’s seaport, to economically dynamic and productive regions in China and Myanmar.

“Myanmar will earn revenue from the seaport and the rail line. There is also the prospect of many manufacturers from China relocating to Myanmar for easy access to the ocean. This rail line will be a great benefit to the country,” Ye Tun said

Chen Hai, China’s ambassador to Myanmar, said in a statement released by the embassy that the rail line “will not only contribute to the development of Myanmar’s economy and enhance the lives of its people, it will also strengthen the national reconciliation and peace process.”

Some groups in Myanmar question the purported economic benefits of the projects.

“One of the purposes of feasibility studies are to observe the economic benefits of the project—whether there will be as much trade or expected usage of the rail line,” Khine Win, director of the China-Myanmar relations-focused Sandhi Governance Institute told RFA.

“It is important to publish the findings from the studies. The initial studies will show whether they should go on with this project or not. The results should be made available to the public. This project must be beneficial both in the long and short term,” he said.

Other Myanmar-China Corridor projects were not without controversy, Tun Kyi, of the Kyaukpyu Rural Development Association, told RFA.

“China built the Shwe gas pipeline project, which caused several disputes over farmland confiscation. The Chinese company and Myanmar authorities have not yet resolved these issues,” Tun Kyi said.

“First and foremost, the study should recognize that individual land ownership and overall development are very low in Rakhine state. If this rail line project goes forward, it will complicate these land issues for sure,” said Tun Kyi.

A spokesperson for the ruling NLD said the operators should consider the opinions of those living near the project as much as it considers the long-term development and diplomatic goals of the country.

“If many people disapprove of the project, their concerns… should be reported to the administrative authorities. The opinions of the people should be taken seriously,” said Myo Nyunt.

“I believe the ruling government has the capacity to make decisions that cover all grounds.” 

Reported by Thet Su Aung, Phyu Phyu Khine, and Nay Myo Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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