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Foreign Policy

Upgrading China-Myanmar Relations

Jan 21 , 2020
  • Peng Nian

    Assistant Research Fellow, National Institute for the South China Sea Studies

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Myanmar got a lot of publicity, including the most significant concern: making the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor a reality. During the meetings, and in a joint communique, the top leaders of both countries vowed to accelerate the corridor project.

The corridor, which would connect China’s Yunnan province to the economic centers of Myanmar, Mandalay and Yangon, and extend to the strategic Kyaukpyu deep-sea port in Southern Myanmar, was first proposed by Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in November 2017. It reflects and overall vision of comprehensive cooperation between China and Myanmar, as well as a new point of growth for the Belt and Road Initiative. When the corridor is completed, bilateral ties would be enhanced economically and socially.

Additionally, the corridor has been perceived as one of the two pillars of the BRI in Southeast and South Asia, along with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The successful implementation of that corridor would build confidence to push forward BRI cooperation.

Yet, the China-Myanmar corridor has made little progress in the past two years, being just a concept rather than a concrete project. Now, there’s a clear plan for its construction. As the joint communique indicates, both sides would make efforts to construct the Kyaukpyu Special Economic Zone in Southern Myanmar, cross-border cooperation zones in northern Myanmar and the new Yangon in eastern Myanmar. Meanwhile, the physical connectivity of roads, railway networks and electrical energy would serve as the backbone of the corridor.
All these infrastructure projects are urgently needed in Myanmar and will benefit people throughout the country.

To help bring the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor concept to fruition, the two sides reached agreement on the Kyaukpyu deep-sea port project, handed over the Muse-Mandalay railway feasibility study report, signed a memorandum of understanding for conducting a feasibility study on Myanmar-China power interconnection and accelerating negotiations on the framework agreement for the China-Myanmar cross-border economic cooperation zone. They also signed a letter of intent regarding the new urban development of Yangon.
Given these specific projects and deals, it is safe to say that the corridor will make substantial progress in the next few years.

However, the ongoing ethnic conflict between government troops and armed ethnic groups in northern Myanmar has hampered the implementation of the corridor concept. For instance, the road between Muse and Mandalay, the most significant trading artery and hub along the China-Myanmar border, has been damaged by the Kokang ethnic army and its allies. Another ethnic group, the Arakan army in Rakhine state, says it rejects Chinese investment in the region.

Given the situation, it is essential to ensure the smooth implementation of the corridor concept in a stable and peaceful northern Myanmar. During a meeting with President Xi, General Min Aung Hlaing promised to support the construction on the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor and affirmed joint maintenance of peace and stability to promote development and prosperity along the border through the China-Myanmar 2+2 diplomatic and security high-level consultation mechanism.

The most significant achievement of President Xi’s Myanmar trip was gaining cooperation on the economic corridor project.

Sino-Myanmar relations will be upgraded through the corridor’s successful construction. In the near future, both sides should honor their agreements and properly resolve issues in the implementation process, thus establishing a community of shared future.

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