China-Myanmar Economic Corridor and the limits of ‘Cheque Book Diplomacy’

On September 9, 2018 Myanmar and China signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for establishing the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), as part of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The corridor will traverse a distance of approximately 1700 kilometres and seeks to connect Kunming (in China’s Yunnan Province) with Myanmar’s key economic points – Mandalay, Yangon, and Kyauphkyu.

According to the MOU, both sides have agreed to collaborate in a number of areas. Some of the important areas identified for collaboration by both countries are: infrastructure, construction, manufacturing, agriculture, transport, finance, human resources development, telecommunications, and research and technology.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had first announced the proposal to build CMEC during his meeting with Myanmar’s State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi in November 2017. The MOU had been finalized in February 2018.

The CMEC is an ambitious project from which Myanmar could benefit immensely. Yet, there have been apprehensions with regard to the economic feasibility of the project, and Myanmar does not want to meet the fate of other countries which have fallen into what has been dubbed as a ‘Debt Trap’.

Opposition to Kyauphkyu

There has been skepticism with regard to the BRI project in general, and China’s involvement in the SEZ and Sea Port to be set up in Kyauphkyu (a coastal town in the Rakhine Province) in particular. Large sections of the population have been questioning the economic rationale of the project – and the benefits for Myanmar. CITIC (China’s biggest financial conglomerate) was awarded both projects, but it had to reduce its stake from 85 percent to 70 percent in the Sea Port after vehement opposition from the local population. Locals found the 85-15 arrangement unreasonable. Fearing a debt trap, the NLD government in Myanmar has also reduced the initial value of the Sea Port project – a whopping $7.3 billion USD to $1.3 billion. There has been opposition to the SEZ as well (mainly on environmental grounds), and while the initial Chinese take in the SEZ (originally valued at $2.7 billion) was 51 percent, it is likely to be revised.

U Kan Zaw, a Minister in the erstwhile Than Sein government (and Chairman of the Kyauphkyu SEZ tender committee), confessed that Myanmar was not very keen for Chinese investment (it had sought investments from the UK and Europe), but it was not left with any other option once other countries declined to invest.

China beginning to acknowledge shortcomings of BRI projects

Of late Beijing has expressed a willingness to re-examine some aspects of BRI-related projects (including CMEC and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor – CPEC). On the face of it, at least Beijing seems open to addressing the worries of countries which are part of the BRI.

Chinese media itself is trying to send a message that Beijing is responsive to concerns of countries which are part of the BRI initiative. A recent example is an article in CGTN on CMEC, which acknowledged not just the drawbacks of the project, but also the fact that the response to CMEC has been tepid so far in Myanmar. Said the article:

CMEC is temporarily suffering from a cold reception, we believe that it is an excellent endeavor.

The authors of the article also makes a significant point: that Chinese businessmen are not familiar with Myanmar. While the article could be referring to the lack of familiarity with Myanmar’s policies, many host countries have been critical not just of the ‘one sided’ nature of Chinese economic investments, but their unwillingness to understand local cultures, and the fact that they remain aloof from the local population.

On a number of occasions, Chinese businessmen have even misbehaved with locals. In Pakistan, on two occasions, Chinese businessmen have beaten up policeman, and this did not go down well with the local population.

While alluding to the failure of big ticket infrastructure projects, the article also refers to the need for Chinese investments in ‘light industry’ as opposed to ‘heavy industry’ (in a reference to infrastructural mega projects, such as those which were scrapped by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad).

One of the interesting aspects of CMEC is that Myanmar was keen to have third party investments, and not restrict itself only to Chinese investments. Investments will come from countries in South East Asia and East Asia — Thailand, South Korea, and Japan. While China’s economic presence in Myanmar is staggering, this has not gone unchallenged and of late countries like South Korea are also increasing their presence in Myanmar. The authors of the CGTN article also try to pitch for Chinese cooperation with other countries, arguing that joint investments will mean not only lesser economic and political burden for China, but that they could also reduce hostilities between Western and Chinese companies.

Finally, the article speaks about the need for greater cooperation between Myanmar and China in the sphere of agriculture (especially aquaculture), and that this cooperation should be economically beneficial for the local population.

Conclusion

It remains to be seen whether China will actually acknowledge the genuine concerns of countries participating in the BRI, and whether or not it will actually take some tangible steps to address the apprehensions. As stated earlier, Beijing seems slightly more flexible in its negotiations, but whether this is a short term trend (which many would argue is a consequence of Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohammad’s straight talking with China) or not remains to be seen.

China may be further compelled to change its approach towards overseas economic investments after the recent electoral rout of Abdulla Yameen (outgoing Maldivian President), considered to be pro-China. One trend which is clearly emerging, as was evident from the electoral verdict of Maldives, was that leaders (many of whom position themselves as strongmen) blindly following Chinese diktats for short term economic goals does not go down well with ordinary citizens, and China may need to address its perception problem by looking beyond Cheque book Diplomacy.