Chinese State Council member Duong Khiet Tri’s flashy visit to Myanmar this week is part of an effort to ensure China’s projects in the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) will resume after the general election in Myanmar next November.
The report released by the Pentagon on September 2, exactly one day after Duong Khiet Tri’s visit, warned Myanmar as one of the countries China was considering setting up a military base. Indeed, apart from the railway project linking Yunnan, China’s remaining most important project in Myanmar is a deep-water port facing the Indian Ocean.
Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone, with a focus on the deep-water port of the same name, facing the Bay of Bengal, is one of the three pillars of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). Once completed, Kyaukphyu will allow Chinese oil purchased from the Middle East to flow directly to Yunnan province without passing through the Strait of Malacca.
According to Diplomat (Japan), although the CMEC was launched in 2017, the idea of making Myanmar a gateway to the Indian Ocean and reducing the dependence on the Malacca Strait appeared in Beijing’s calculations from 1980.
Mr. Yang, considered the highest-ranking diplomat in the Chinese Communist Party, met privately with Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint on September 1 before continuing his tour to Europe.
According to Irrawaddy, the senior Chinese official has urged Myanmar to maintain efforts to implement projects in the BRI, especially those reached during a historic visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping last month.
The above projects include Kyaukphyu deep-water port, Yangon new city and Thuy Le-Muse cross-border economic cooperation zone. Yang then announced that he would provide 200 million yuan in support to the state of Rakhine, where the Kyaukphyu port is located and is in a state of unrest because of the Rohingya crisis.
Even as the COVID-19 epidemic raged in Myanmar, Beijing pressed the country to continue BRI’s backbone projects, such as Xi’s phone call with Myanmar President this year.
In a response later in June, Myanmar’s Deputy Minister of Planning and Finance U Set Aung announced Naypyidaw would only undertake BRI projects that were commercially viable and strategically important for Myanmar.
Myanmar remain cautious
Some observers stated that Mr. Duong’s visit to Myanmar shows that the implementation of BRI projects in Myanmar is having problems.
‘As the elections approached, his trip was aimed at checking the status of Chinese strategic projects in Myanmar. Beijing wants CMEC projects to budge right before the general election, ‘said researcher Khin Khin Kyaw Kyee of Myanmar’s Institute of Strategic and Policy Studies (ISP).
Although San Suu Kyi’s National Coalition for Democracy is expected to continue to win – that is, without a disturbance of government, this is what China worries about. Out of 33 agreements to build infrastructure along the CMEC signed during Xi’s visit, San Suu Kyi’s administration has only approved four of these.
‘In other countries, the implementation of BRI projects usually progresses very quickly. But here, the government is very cautious and the process is still slow. That is the main reason Mr. Duong went to Myanmar, ” explained Ms. Khin Khin Kyaw Kyee.
Despite acknowledging Beijing’s support for the Rohingya, San Suu Kyi’s administration has shown caution against Chinese projects. Concerned about too much debt burden of China, in August 2018, Myanmar negotiated to reduce the scale of the Kyaukphyu port project, bringing a huge amount of 1.3 billion USD to 7.3 billion USD.
The general contractor for the project is China Traffic Construction Corporation – one of the companies that have just been sanctioned by the US for serving as a tool to promote China’s “debt-trap diplomacy”.
A few months later, the Myanmar government set up the BRI Steering Committee, chaired by Ms. San Suu Kyi herself, to review Chinese super projects and ensure that they serve Myanmar’s interests.
Know the stalking debt trap Hard to say NO
Responding to the Turkish news agency Anadolu, an unnamed deputy minister of Myanmar said that as a poor country, Myanmar would inevitably risk falling into a debt trap if accepting large loans from China without considering seriously.
However, he said that China is a superpower and a neighbor of Myanmar, so it is difficult for Myanmar to say no to Chinese investment. “We have to find ways to benefit our country from Chinese projects,” he said.