Is China dictating Myanmar’s vision for its future – fact or hysteria?

07 December 2019
Is China dictating Myanmar’s vision for its future – fact or hysteria?
GRAND VISION – China has seen massive infrastructure development over the last three decades including gleaming, high-rise cities. In what China claims is a “win-win” situation for Myanmar and China, the China-Myanmar corridor looks set to be developed in the coming decades. Photo: Simon Zhu

Whenever revisiting the China Belt Road Initiative and Myanmar MOU signed last year covering the newly established China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), there is a sense of Deja-vu in terms of concerns raised. Much of the debate is driven by media and interest groups that do not clearly articulate what their real agenda is.  

When the original criticism claimed that China was deliberately destabilizing the northern parts of Myanmar currently marred by civil unrest did not undermine China’s BRI, the criticism has now shifted to questions as to who is developing Myanmar’s future vision. It is ironic that claims around this civil unrest and Rohingya issue led to a reduction in western investment and tourism in Myanmar as USA led sanctions took effect. With China gaining a stronger footprint, it is not surprising that this footprint has led to allegations of Myanmar’s loss of sovereignty. What is needed is balanced debate and discussion as developing countries, such as Myanmar, need foreign and technical aid if they wish to pursue economic and social development agendas.

Furthermore, these claims undermine debate around the real or perceived risks associated of allowing Chinese participation in key infrastructure development within Myanmar and other BRI participants. It can be argued that the BRI should be viewed as a win-win initiative. By looking at what participating countries gain, rather than seeing the BRI as a form of predatory economics and geo-political connivance would give balance to the debate and evaluation of the risk profile.

Myanmar plays a central role along China’s BRI that is unsettling to its opponents. Highlighting this is the USA’s current confused foreign relations approach to Myanmar as well as India’s Kaladana multimodal transport link in Rakhine State. What Myanmar must be wary of is getting caught in the crossfire.

What is not in question is that INFRASTRUCTURE PROJECTS BRING SUSTAINABLE GROWTH. Not only does the BRI incorporate objectives that have the purpose of ensuring infrastructure project sustainability. Just as other nations have integrated development plans, so too does the BRI, but on a much larger scale. This was clearly articulated in the 2017 Beijing BRI summit, and has been seen as China demonstrating that it was openly transparent regarding its intentions.

Much of the confusion is driven by a poor understanding of sustainable development. Historically, the West has adopted a more Hobbesian economic approach that measures commercial success in three to five-year time frames. China on the other hand, develops strategy around extended time frames that measure a four tier return on investment. Financial returns are balanced with community, environmental and heritage values as measures of success. Ironically, these same measures are used by development banks to evaluate responsible investment, yet question China’s use due to a 10 to 20-year time frame.

Currently commentators point to only nine of the 38 projects under the CMEC that have been approved as proof of strains in the relationship. However, this fails to recognize that sustainable development requires careful consideration and time. Initially, much of the early negotiations focused on financial and fiscal sustainability, however these are not the only measures that are encapsulated in the BRI programme. Just as important, but takes time, are the “people to people” or “soft diplomacy” sustainability initiatives that ultimately deliver a win-win result. These are the steps taken to engage the community, allow for the transfer of skills that allows the recipient country controls and owns its vision of the future.

This is no different for Myanmar, with several examples that demonstrate China’s openness to deliver win-win outcomes. A prime example is the agreement that all BRI / China investments are subject to open tenders as well as the ability to seek international financing. Contrary to popular media reports, this is not an exception created for Myanmar, but is part of China’s international inclusivity and co-operation approach to development, outlined in its China Plus One Policy. The Philippines railway project that includes China and Japan is a good working example of this approach. Furthermore, it reinforces the notion that the recipient country controls its vision of the future.

A complicating issue is that the CMEC passes through regions in Myanmar that are caught up in major civil unrest, mainly between the Tatmadaw and ethnic rebel groups intent on holding onto resources that have been acquired during years of civil war and isolation. At the present time China has initiated peace talks as well as contributed significantly to financing the peace process and negotiations. The peace process is aimed at redressing ethnic struggle over territory and sovereignty that has created a mosaic of individual fiefdoms. In a sense, it can be argued that the peace process is assisting Myanmar create a single and cohesive sovereignty, with a clear vision of what the future for its citizens should look like. 

There are several examples that further illustrate China’s openness under the BRI that creates the conditions for countries like Myanmar to shape a successful future. Consider the New Yangon City project that attracted much criticism. Central to the project is the conversion of 8,000 ha of swamp land into an urban industrial zone that will help transform Myanmar as BRI participation accelerates labour, trade and capital flows. Those demonstrating against the project where invited to visit Shanghai and given an insight and appreciation of the China development model. One might say, that following the trip, there has been a more positive train of thought by those against China’s involvement. There is insufficient time to go into the visit by protestors against Myitsone Dam to six dams in China’s Yellow River region nor the important Muse / Mandalay railway line in which there is a recognition and plan to distribute benefits evenly rather than concentrate in a few hands.

In the long run China is sharing its expertise and knowledge that surely benefits Myanmar, as it emerges from decades of isolation. The BRI helps leapfrog its development path by not needing to invest time and cost in a development learning period, making way for sustainable development? Why is it okay for developed countries to use this leapfrog style of development strategy, yet frown when used by emerging countries? The West continually strives to “eliminate poverty” yet appears at ease when they add hurdles to keep emerging countries like Myanmar in poverty. 

It makes sense for Myanmar to see the BRI offering a sustainable development opportunity that is driven by what the citizens of Myanmar envisage as their future. What is catered for is the ability for Myanmar to play to their strengths and harness assistance to address their technical shortcomings.  These will be articulated and reinforced through the 38 BRI project agreements in place. 

PART 3 in a series entitled SILK ROAD BLUES featured in Mizzima Weekly Issue 49 this week. 
Check out Part 4 tomorrow