Since the beginning of 2018, the friendly ties between China and Myanmar have continued their steady progress, with the two nations deepening pragmatic cooperation in a variety of areas. On September 9, 2018, the two sides signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in Beijing to build the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), one of the key projects of the China-proposed Belt and Road initiative (BRI). On November 8, the two countries signed a framework agreement on the Kyauk Phyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) deep-sea port project in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar. Also, Myanmar has over the last two years been facing great international pressure over resolving the Rakhine State issue, but China has continued its support for the Myanmar government’s stance on the issue.
Recently at the Myanmar Embassy in Beijing, Global Times reporters Li Sikun and Li Qiaoyi (GT) got a rare interview with U Thit Linn Ohn (TLO), Myanmar Ambassador to China, seeking his input into some of the most important questions regarding the bilateral ties, most notably the CMEC.
GT: China and Myanmar have signed the MOU for building the CMEC, but no detailed plans have yet been announced. Could you please let us know about the areas of focus for the corridor? What will it be like when the corridor is put in place?
TLO: The establishment of the CMEC involves cooperation between the two countries’ economic and trade departments, which are supposed to have a deep understanding of the specific details. I will try my best to offer some explanation.
Under the MOU to build the corridor, a special working group has been created to push for cooperation in 14 key areas including infrastructure construction, industry capacity and investment, agriculture, border economic cooperation zones, digital silk road, and ecological environment. Currently, the two sides are in talks over which of the 14 areas will be prioritized.
The CMEC is mostly designed to bring benefits to the people of the two countries. The MOU states clearly that investors from across the globe will be engaged when the two sides implement relevant projects. When plans to build the CMEC are realized, it is expected that Myanmar’s transportation infrastructure will be in better shape, the gap between rich and poor across different regions in Myanmar will be narrowed, and Myanmar is bound to embrace new opportunities of cooperation with neighboring countries. Opening more roads will lead to closer ties, allowing for products to be exported out of Myanmar and also the import of quality products from foreign countries. This has a lot of benefits for both Myanmar’s imports and exports.
The transportation of agricultural products is also envisioned to benefit substantially from the availability of more physical road links and closer bilateral ties. There will also be considerable progress in terms of electrical infrastructure. Regions with an abundance of electricity generation can deliver power to the areas where there is a shortage of power. With sufficient electricity, factories will then begin operations and increase the output. It will also greatly help Myanmar’s education and healthcare. The Myanmar people’s incomes will rise, pulling people out of poverty.
GT: What’s your evaluation of the CMEC? What opportunities will the CMEC bring for Myanmar’s future economic development? Will it provide new chances for China to push for large investment projects in Myanmar?
TLO: The CMEC is part of the BRI. The first-ever Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation was held in May 2017, during which China and Myanmar signed an MOU on BRI. The BRI cooperation indicates the friendly and close relations between the two countries known as paukphaw. It not only generates economic benefits for the people of China and Myanmar, but is also of benefit to regional development. In the wake of the Belt and Road Forum, both countries intend to cooperate in building the CMEC. This is, in itself, fairly precious. Myanmar has attached great importance to the cooperation with China. The country has recently established a leading committee for the implementation of the BRI with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi assuming the role of chairperson.
As for what opportunities the CMEC is supposed to bring for Myanmar’s economic development, [I would say] they mostly revolve around education when it comes to long-term needs. If the CMEC is in place, we will be brought into line with contemporary levels in education and science and technology terms.
Furthermore, we also need help regarding vocational and technical education. Compared with the demand for higher education that prepares students for studies at bachelor’s or postgraduate’s level, what Myanmar more urgently needs is education that readies students directly for jobs. Myanmar is a developing country, and it is quite backward in development terms. Compared with efforts to build schools and hospitals, the need for teachers, doctors and nurses has been more urgent. To catch up with the world’s more advanced levels, we also have an urgent need for scientific researchers and laboratories, which can only be achieved through the transfer of intellectual property rights under the framework of the CMEC MOU.
Myanmar is an agricultural country, with agriculture-related sectors accounting for 70 percent of the economy. The country’s farm produce is of good quality, but we need a great market as well as attractive packaging and technologies that will allow long-term storage. These problems are believed to be covered under the MOU.
For technical reasons, very few factories in Myanmar can achieve mass production and businesses in the country are mostly small and medium-sized. We are desperate for foreign investment, technologies, skilled workers and technical training. I believe we’ll get tremendous help with the signing of the MOU.
Currently, Myanmar’s hotel and tourism sectors are experiencing robust demand, but we need airports and supporting services for tourists, for the two sectors to continue to develop. More air routes between Myanmar and its neighboring countries and regions are also required.
After the signing of the CMEC MOU, the building of the corridor, which is a complex and difficult task, still needs to be implemented step by step. My understanding is that China’s National Development and Reform Commission is now in close cooperation with Myanmar’s Ministry of Planning and Finance.
GT: A consortium led by China’s CITIC Group and Myanmar signed a framework agreement on the Kyauk Phyu SEZ deep-sea port project recently. What’s your outlook for the port project’s role in Myanmar’s future development plans?
TLO: The project offers practical benefits for both countries. Deep-sea ports differ from normal ports in that they are intended for anchorage of large tonnage vessels. Myanmar will make much of the deep-sea port project. Along with the building of the port project will come plans to build a special economic zone, creating many job opportunities for local residents. The development of the region where the port project is situated will also be accelerated, which will gradually give a boost to the local tourism as well.
Rakhine State, home to the Kyauk Phyu SEZ deep-sea port project, is the second most un-developed area in Myanmar. The State is in urgent need for building of roads, railroads, and electrical infrastructure. After the completion of the port project, there will also be a need for profitability. We can see with our eyes that the region will surely be embracing greater development. Although some of the negotiations under way may still take time, the region’s development is unstoppable.
GT: What is now the first imperative in pushing for the building of the CMEC?
TLO: Like I said earlier, the Myanmar government is still choosing among the 14 areas of cooperation as to which areas will be developed first.
Myanmar, for its part, is developing the economy in accordance with the Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan (2018-30). The long-term plan is in line with the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. I believe China also has similar development plans and needs to ensure things work out according to the plans that are already in place. There will be various types of economic cooperation between China and Myanmar, and the two sides are expected to negotiate based on their own national circumstances.
What path to development will Myanmar be walking? On the part of the government, that means soliciting public participation in economic development. It is also hoped that relevant work can be made transparent and equitable. We make much of local people’s willingness, and will pay attention to environmental protection. The State Counselor has also stated that the two countries’ long-term interests ought to be guaranteed over the course of building the CMEC.
Competition should be encouraged in building the corridor. Meanwhile, Myanmar’s relevant laws and regulations need to be respected while building the corridor.
GT: What challenges are expected to be faced with the building of the CMEC? Will ethnic militias in northern Myanmar and extremist groups in Rakhine State pose threats to the corridor’s building and its operations in the future? How can these challenges be overcome?
TLO: These threats won’t occur in the future. Each country in the world is faced with various challenges. It is how these challenges are handled that matters the most. Whether they are extremist groups or ethnic militias, no country can be 100 percent sure they will never exist. Out of consideration for national security, the governments and security departments in particular ought to cooperate in addressing the problems. Either extremist groups or ethnic militias essentially represent injustice, therefore it’s impossible that they’ll always claim victory.
Myanmar is very much dedicated to protecting the territorial integrity, social stability and the people’s interests, as well as ensuring investment from both home and abroad stay intact. We have always strived to reduce or even eliminate security risks facing these important projects and the regions where they are located. A major task facing our country is to push for its legalization, foster peace and the unity of the people, upon the basis of which these projects will achieve greater development. Peace, stability and development are completely inseparable. Following the signing of the CMEC MOU, we will make the utmost efforts to ensure its security and it is believed we have the capability to maintain its security.