Govt urged to establish Belt and Road taskforce

From tackling illegal border trade to constructing Kyaukphyu SEZ, the to-do list for Belt and Road in Myanmar is very long.

THE Myanmar government is urged to take a proactive role and form a taskforce to carve out its involvement in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). An adviser to the National League for Democracy-led government stressed the need to scrutinise debt while others voiced the need to explore how connectivity will compromise the country’s sovereignty and identity.

Launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 as “One Belt, One Road”, the initiative involves China underwriting billion-dollar investments, mainly in physical infrastructure, in countries along the land-based Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road, creating an extensive trade network by linking the continents of Asia, Europe and Africa. The scheme gained much fanfare in the country when State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi paid a visit to the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in the Chinese capital in May.

Sean Turnell, an economic adviser to the National League for Democracy-led government, pointed out the need to scrutinise debt arrangements while highlighted the opportunity for Myanmar to expand its export markets via the scheme.

“The Belt and Road Initiative offers the possibility of a number of highly beneficial infrastructure investments for countries such as Myanmar.

“To the extent that these connect the region and lower the costs of trade, then all of this is not just good – but very much consistent with the government’s philosophy of expanding and diversifying the markets for Myanmar’s exports.

Naturally, countries undertake investments for their own benefit first, and so a similarly realistic appraisal of BRI projects will be undertaken, just as in all other projects too. In particular, any debt or similar commitments must receive close scrutiny. – Sean Turnell, NLD economic adviser

Marshall Plan of the 21st century

U Zeya Thu, senior research fellow at Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies, pointed out that Myanmar is not included in the previous BRI blueprint, but Beijing’s grand design would not be complete without Myanmar’s participation.

“Myanmar is one of the core parts of the initiative, and the country must take part in it. “But we have to do so in a way which achieves a win-win situation. Myanmar has to think carefully about the benefits and problems associated with joining the scheme.

“It is not possible for us to take part in the BRI without taking into account the national priorities or interest of Myanmar,” he said, adding that the country’s geostrategic advantages has rendered it “the new crossroad of Asia” and has received a lot of international interest.

“One of the foreign experts told me that the land bridge of Southeast Asia in Myanmar is not yet constructed. This reflects the level of infrastructure gap the country is suffering at the moment.

“The Belt and Road Initiative is one of the solutions. “But whether it will resolve the problem hinges on how our policymakers work with China and how much the country will benefit from the BRI. The challenges will remain but we should minimise the risks,” U Zeya Thu said.

“Some international experts have been comparing the Belt and Road Initiative with the Marshall Plan, which is officially known as the European Recovery Program [ERP]. The ERP covers the period when the United States injected financial aid into the Western European countries to help them rebuild their economies after the Second World War.

“Those experts said that this is the Marshall Plan of the 21st century,” he went on.

Sovereignty and identity

U Tin Maung Maung Than, senior research fellow at ISEAS (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies) and who researches about ASEAN, said that China is pushing the BRI in order to sustain its economic growth as well as maintain the regime’s own political survival. But the problem with Myanmar is that Nay Pyi Taw does not know the details on which part of the scheme the country is involved in.

“China announced this plan after calculating how much it will benefit from the scheme; Myanmar still doesn’t know how the country will benefit, how many local people will be employed, and how much of Myanmar’s sovereignty will be affected.

“We don’t know how to measure the sovereignty. We don’t know how much sovereignty will be compromised when the roads and railways are constructed,” he argued.

U Zaw Aye Maung, regional minister for the Ministry of Rakhine Ethnic Affairs of Yangon Region, said that China has to be a good neighbour of Myanmar.

“At the same time, we need to grab the opportunity from the BRI by protecting our sovereignty and identity of Myanmar,” he said.

Govt taskforce urgently needed

Myanmar’s objective in joining the BRI is to acquire economic benefits from areas such as information exchange, advanced technology, prevention of transnational crime, elimination of drug trafficking and cracking down of illegal border trade along the BRI corridors.

U Aye Lwin, member of NLD Central Executive Economic Committee, highlighted the need to tackle illegal trade at the borders. “We need a law enforcement mechanism and infrastructure development at the border areas to eliminate illegal trade. “We consider this scheme as a possible solution for some of the issues which Myanmar is having at the moment,” he said.

U Zeya Thu stressed that the government urgently needs to form a taskforce to draw up the country’s involvement in the Belt and Road Initiative. The taskforce needs to be formed with the input and collaboration with the Ministry of Planning and Finance, the military or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“Belt and Road can be an Asia-led globalisation. The project is such a grand one. But this China-led project must primarily serve the interest of China, not the interest of Myanmar or other participants. “Hence, what we can do is to draw strategy to show China what would work alongside Myanmar’s national interest,” he said.

Indonesia’s $28b ambition

Jakarta Globe reported on May 24 that Indonesia sought to draw up to US$28 billion worth of investment from Chinese investors from hundreds of projects put on the table during the Belt and Road summit in May. According to the Ministry of Planning and Finance, Myanmar has not come up with any similar plan.

U Tun Tun Naing, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Planning and Finance, said the country agreed to join the game when the State Counsellor went to Beijing. But the government has not laid out the details of its involvement.

“It is not just about the Belt and Road. We have a whole range of areas to collaborate with China and neighbouring countries at the same time. Hence, it can’t be done by turning a blind eye.

“We have some projects which are in the pipeline already, some pending to go ahead, some which are suspended but will restart, and some new ones as well.

“The decision of each project depends on our national interest, the development of our country and how we can be benefitted. We are going to mull over the issues very carefully when making decisions related to the BRI-led projects,” he said.

At the BRI summit in May, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi stressed that BRI-led projects should complement national priorities and take into account the welfare of local communities.

The Myanmar Times also interviewed Myanmar and foreign businesses on their views. Businesses generally welcomed the investment boost for the country’s infrastructure but many emphasised the importance of transparency, public engagement and adhering to international practices.

Source: Myanmar Times