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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Contentious Dam Project Tops Myanmar Leader's China Visit

By William Ide August 17, 2016

The fate of a long-suspended and contentious Chinese dam project in Myanmar is expected to be a key topic of discussion during State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi's visit this week to China.

Before the Wednesday to Sunday visit, state media published a flurry of articles showcasing the importance of ties and the visit.

Myanmar's former military-backed government suspended the hydropower project in 2011, citing concern about China's growing economic influence in the country. Those opposing the dam also objected to the deal that would send 90 percent of the power generated by the dam to China. They also cited environmental impact that would change the flow of the Irrawaddy River. Then opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi opposed the deal.

Reports in Chinese media and comments online have made it clear expectations for a resolution to the dam issue are growing and that Beijing sees the project as a key obstacle to relations, particularly increased commercial ties.

One article in the Communist Party-backed Global Times called the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam a "symbolic project for Sino-Myanmar cooperation" and noted growing hope in China that the two sides might soon reach a "turning point."

Myanmar recently announced plans to establish a committee to review hydropower projects on the Irrawaddy. The committee is expected to provide an assessment report by early November.

Bi Shihong, an international relations professor at China's southern Yunnan University said it is unlikely that during the visit either side will reach an agreement, but it is crucial for Beijing that some progress on the issue is made soon.

"If the issue is not resolved it will be an obstacle to furthering economic ties between China and Myanmar. In particular, Chinese companies involved in big infrastructure projects will have less of reason to feel confident (about investing in Myanmar)," Bi said.

Dam Options

But he was confident the committee could find a way to reach an appropriate solution for the long-stalled project.

Bi said there are really only three options for the government of Myanmar:

1) Completing canceling the project and paying compensation to the Chinese company involved,

2) Allowing the Chinese company to resume the project, or

3) Canceling the project and finding other projects for the company to complete as compensation.

An employee of China Power Investment Corporation, the company behind the project, had an equally sober assessment. In a comment on his SinaWeibo account, China's version of Twitter, the employee noted that expectations shouldn't be too high for the visit.

"The more hope we have, the more disappointment we may face," the post said, adding that the company would continue to try to create favorable conditions for the project to resume as soon as possible.

Communication logjam

Authorities have been tight-lipped about the details of her visit, but Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to meet with Premier Li Keqiang and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

One Weibo user living in Yunnan, a southern province that borders Myanmar, said that while the dam is the biggest concern for China, it is unlikely to resolved any time soon.

More important, the user added is that the two countries focus on promoting, improving and regulating Chinese investment in Myanmar and explore ways China could help with the peace process there.

China is Myanmar's biggest investor, but its longstanding and close relationship with the country's former military rulers has not helped its popularity. And while Myanmar's new government is reaching out to a growing range of countries to improve ties and not be overly reliant on any country, China is stepping up its efforts as well.

Companies are working more aggressively to highlight what they argue are the benefits their projects bring residents in Myanmar. One mining company has even released a 20 minute documentary about how it turned a controversial mining project around.

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