China Inks Economic Agreements With Myanmar, Promising COVID-19 Vaccine Donation

YANGON—Myanmar and China signed agreements on the economy, trade and technical cooperation during the Chinese foreign minister’s trip to Myanmar’s capital, Naypyitaw, including a promise from Beijing to provide 300,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine to its southern neighbor.

Wang Yi launched his first Southeast Asian tour of 2021 on Monday with an official visit to Myanmar. Wang is the first foreign minister to visit Myanmar since the Nov. 8 election, which the National League for Democracy (NLD) won in a landslide. He announced the donation of 3 million yuan (about US$464,000) worth of COVID-19 medical supplies to Myanmar during his trip.

In separate meetings with State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint, Wang urged Myanmar to maintain the momentum on implementing bilateral projects including transport infrastructure projects under the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), which is part of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Since Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Myanmar in January last year, China has aggressively sought assurances from leaders in Myanmar that implementation of the CMEC projects will begin.

One day before Wang arrived in Naypyitaw, Myanmar and China signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on a feasibility study (FS) for the Mandalay-Kyaukphyu Railway project, a crucial part of Beijing’s strategic railway plan to connect Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan province and Kyaukphyu port on the Bay of Bengal, in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State. The port will play a key role in China’s move to boost its presence in the Indian Ocean through the BRI.

The State Counselor’s Office said the two sides signed agreements on economic and technical cooperation and a five-year development program for trade and economic cooperation between China and Myanmar.

Its announcement said China and Myanmar exchanged a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) agreeing to carry out an FS for the Mandalay-Kyaukphyu Railway project. The two sides also exchanged the minutes of a meeting on the possibility of conducting an FS on a project to improve rural roads and bridges in the country, and the Chinese side handed over a certificate of cash support for the resettlement of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Kachin State.

During his trip to Myanmar last year, Xi promised to provide 200 million yuan for resettlement programs for Kachin IDPs. In August, the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar said it had transferred 4 million yuan to the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement as a part of the agreement.

Myanmar and Chinese government officials meet in Naypyitaw on Jan. 11, 2021. / Myanmar State Counselor’s Office
Kachin State is strategically important for China’s BRI project, as it is home to three major CMEC projects: the US$400-million (535.5-billion-kyat) Myitkyina Economic Zone, a business park in Kanpiketi, and a port in Bhamo. The latter is part of the China-Myanmar Irrawaddy Economic Belt, a strategic land and water transport route expected to start in Kunming and run through Longchuan in China’s Yunnan province to Bhamo in Kachin State, then to Yangon and the Indian Ocean.

During Wang’s trip, the two sides also exchanged a certificate for the purchase of passenger coaches from China. Recently, 28 railway coaches from China arrived in Myanmar, which plans to use them for the Yangon-Mandalay Railway. In December 2018, Myanmar’s Parliament approved an 80-million-yuan interest-free loan to purchase the coaches from China.

Wang and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi also agreed to cooperate on peace and stability along the borders and closer collaboration between the two countries in regional and multilateral fora, including the United Nations, the statement said.

Wang has played a major mediation role in the Rohingya repatriation process between Myanmar and Bangladesh and in the peace process with ethnic armed groups in the Northern Alliance. Despite accusations that the treatment of the Rohingya amounted to genocide and war crimes, Beijing continues to offer strong support to Myanmar.

According to the press release, Wang met separately with Union Minister for the Office of the State Counselor U Kyaw Tint Swe and discussed ways to enhance bilateral relations and ensure security, peace and stability in border areas; China’s continued support for Myanmar’s peace process; and IDP issues in Rakhine State.

Daw Khin Khin Kyaw Kyee, the head of the China desk at the Institute for Strategy and Policy-Myanmar, told The Irrawaddy that Wang’s trip aims to cement China’s relations with the NLD-led government during its upcoming term, as Myanmar occupies a strategic location for China geographically.

Wang announced on Sunday his official tour to four Southeast Asia countries—Myanmar, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines—from Jan. 11 to 16.

Political analyst Dr. Yan Myo Thein said Wang’s trip aims to convey Beijing’s desire to push the implementation of CMEC projects in Myanmar. He said Wang’s charm offensive in Southeast Asia demonstrated Chinese leaders’ concerns about a policy shift in Washington toward Southeast Asian countries as the Biden administration prepares to take over.

He said that while the Trump administration failed to build close relations with Southeast Asian countries, President-elect Joe Biden will prioritize rebuilding its alliance network in the region in response to China’s growing influence.

“Myanmar is very important for China to gain access to the Indian Ocean. Beijing will try hard to get Myanmar to implement [its projects] as soon as possible. But Myanmar needs to listen first to the people on the ground, especially their concerns over social and environmental effects and [negative] sentiment due to the projects,” Dr. Yan Myo Thein added.