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Radio Free Asia

Chinese Leader's Mid-January Visit to Myanmar Seen as Boosting Belt And Road Projects

2020-01-08 -- Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to visit Myanmar late next week to discuss bilateral relations and to push for the speedier buildout of Chinese development projects under his massive Belt and Road Initiative, Myanmar analysts said Wednesday.

Neither the Myanmar nor Chinese government has released details of his Jan. 17-18 trip – Xi's first visit to the Southeast Asian country since 2009 – on the occasion of the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the countries.

Myanmar analysts say Xi's trip could bode well for the country's faltering peace process and economic growth.

Beijing has encouraged rebel ethnic armies fighting Myanmar troops in border areas to meet with peace negotiators and agree to bilateral cease-fires with the government military.

China's primary motive for getting involved in the peace process is driven by its interest in securing border areas so that infrastructure investments in Myanmar under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are not jeopardized, analysts believe.

A signature policy of Xi's, the multitrillion-dollar BRI infrastructure investment and lending program that will link China with Asia, Africa, and Europe entails the building of border economic cooperation zones in Myanmar's war-torn Shan and Kachin states.

The BRI also includes the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), a road and rail transportation route running from southwest China's Yunnan province through the Myanmar border town Muse and on to Mandalay and Kyaukphyu in Rakhine state where a Special Economic Zone is being planned to serve as a strategic gateway to the Indian Ocean.

Beijing has also pressured Naypyidaw to allow it to continue building the highly controversial Myitsone Dam project in Kachin state, put on hold in 2011 amid protests over its social and environmental impacts.

"China's pressure and negotiations regarding the peace process in Myanmar will intensify because it needs peace in Myanmar for its businesses [to thrive]," said ethnic affairs expert Maung Maung Soe.

Hla Kyaw Zaw, a political exile who lives in China and follows bilateral relations, said Xi's visit will give Myanmar an economic shot in the arm.

"He is going to try to accelerate Myanmar's economy in places where his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project is active," he said, noting that China's infrastructure developments in Myanmar and neighboring Bangladesh and India have not yet been completed.

"That's why he is coming, I think," he said.

'China feels frustrated'

Political analyst Than Soe Naing said Xi may seek to strong-arm Myanmar into moving faster on the implementation of a key railway project under the BRI that will run from the border trading town of Muse in northern Shan state to the central city of Mandalay

"China feels frustrated about the building of the Muse-Mandalay railway as part of the BRI," he told RFA's Myanmar Service.

"Myanmar officials said that just the land survey part is done, while the train station in Ruili on China's side has already been built," Than Soe Naing added, referring to the Chinese trading town situation across the river from Muse.

"Xi Jinping could have a plan to force this railway project and the building of an economic zone in Muse to be completed sooner than expected," he said.

If this was to happen, rebel ethnic armies operating in border areas would be less likely to disrupt construction plans and to reduce the fighting, he added.

Myanmar economist Hla Maung said Xi's visit will give Myanmar a much needed boost in light of intense international condemnation.

The international community has condemned the Myanmar government's handling of a brutal military-led crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state in 2017, with some nations bringing genocide charges against it in international courts.

"As China's No. 1 leader is visiting, Myanmar will benefit politically, economically, and socially," said Myanmar economist Hla Maung. "This is the time when Myanmar needs help, as it is under international pressure."

Reported by Wai Mar Tun for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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