A panel chaired by Myanmar's State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi to oversee Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects points to the seriousness that Myanmar attaches to the plan. It is not usual for nations to show such effort for BRI projects and the move speaks volumes about Myanmar's embrace of China's outreach.
The 27-member steering committee with Vice President U Myint Swe as vice chairman and ministers and regional chief ministers as members is tasked with coordinating between the Myanmar federal government and provincial authorities under BRI. The panel, which reports to the president, will make proposals, formulate implementation plans and organize experts to conduct research on BRI projects.
China has become Myanmar's largest trading partner and a crucial source of foreign capital. Their interdependence in economy and trade has laid the ground for capital and technology transfer from China, and deeper economic cooperation.
With bilateral cooperation in agriculture, manufacturing, infrastructure and finance, Myanmar can take advantage of opportunities provided by China's industrial progress.
BRI, of strategic significance for China's economic transformation, can enable Myanmar to piggyback on its northern neighbor's rapid development. By establishing the BRI committee, the Myanmar government has given proof of the effort it seeks to exercise in implementing projects and jointly promote the construction of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC).
In May 2017, the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on Belt and Road cooperation. Six months later, China proposed the CMEC for which a MoU was inked in September 2018. The 1,700-kilometer corridor will connect Kunming, the capital of China's Yunnan Province, to Myanmar's major economic checkpoints - first to Mandalay in central Myanmar, and then east to Yangon and west to the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone, linking the least and most developed areas of the Southeast Asian nation and helping drive its balanced economic development.
Myanmar's society is largely not aware of BRI and knowledge of the initiative is limited to government officials and elites engaged in policy research or dealing with China. Ordinary intellectuals, not to mention the man in the street, have little knowledge of the initiative. Some fringe elements prejudiced against China often protest against the projects, which has dented the confidence of Chinese companies to invest.
There is lack of coordination between the two governments on each other's vision and policy on development. They have faced multiple challenges of capital, land acquisition, environmental protection and security in building cross-border railways and roads. The bilateral trade has long been out of kilter with Myanmar suffering a huge trade deficit. Moreover, the border trade is easily affected by conflicts in northern Myanmar.
The BRI, which can have far-reaching influence on politics and security, will face stumbles in Myanmar if authorities don't pay more attention to how the livelihood of locals is affected, and carefully handle environment protection, employment, land acquisition and house demolition.
In the process of promoting BRI in Myanmar, China needs to have precise knowledge of the concerns and demands of the country, make efforts to dissipate doubts, improve mutual trust and forge practical rules for development of bilateral cooperation.
When Chinese enterprises build major projects such as ports, railways and roads in Myanmar, they need to pay special attention to connecting the inland areas and to train local manpower.
When undertaking large-scale infrastructure projects, Myanmar should encourage or even demand multilateral financing to improve transparency. While entering the Myanmese market, Chinese companies can try third-party market cooperation with enterprises in Western countries and jointly invest in projects so as to reduce chances of vicious competition and friction, and reduce the probability of China-Myanmar cooperation suffering.
Human resource is crucial in increasing BRI cooperation between China and Myanmar. The two countries lack experienced personnel to promote cooperation. It is necessary for both sides to train people who understand each other's language and have professional competence.
China-Myanmar BRI cooperation demands concerted efforts. The Myanmese government and people have to work to facilitate trade with more inclusive, rational and open mind-set.
The author is a professor at the Center for China's Neighbor Diplomacy Studies and School of International Studies, Yunnan University.