China-Myanmar relations: An old friendship renewed by the Belt & Road
Ji Xianbai
The Uppatasanti Pagoda in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, January 14, 2020. /Xinhua Photo

The Uppatasanti Pagoda in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, January 14, 2020. /Xinhua Photo

Editor's Note: Ji Xianbai is a research fellow with the International Political Economy Program of S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. The article reflects the author's opinions, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

Chinese President Xi Jinping just completed his state visit to Myanmar on January 17 and 18. This rare single-country overseas trip by the top Chinese leader was a concrete testimony to the long-standing "Paukphaw" friendship injected with renewed vitality.  

While President Xi's visit was meant to commemorate the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and Myanmar, the deep-running Sino-Myanmar socio-economic ties have a long ancestry that stretches over millennia. Myanmar was located at the crossroads of the ancient Southwestern Silk Road and the Tea Horse Road opened back in the Han Dynasty. Myanmar served not only as the commercial hub where Chinese, Burmese, Indian and Javanese merchants mingled and traded but also an interchange of religion, Buddhism in particular, between East Asia and South Asia.     

Since 2013, China has been actively reviving these historic silk roads and physical linkages that once knitted peoples and civilizations in the vast Afro-Eurasia supercontinent together through their modern-day incarnations, collectively labeled as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 

Myanmar plays a very critical role within the scope of the BRI. The planned Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor carving out a path of connective infrastructure from Kunming to Kolkata crosses Myanmar's Mandalay; the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) provides for greater intra-Myanmar transport connectivity while facilitating economic integration between Myanmar and China's inland province of Yunnan; and the Kyaukphyu seaport on the Bay of Bengal is an integral part of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, the maritime component of the BRI, for expanding and upgrading global shipping capacity.    

Myanmar has proved a firm supporter of the BRI corridors and projects. State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi attended both BRI summits in 2017 and 2019. And during President Xi's latest visit to Myanmar, the two countries reaffirmed their unwavering commitment to pushing forward win-win Belt and Road cooperation for mutual benefits and common prosperity despite some short-term project setbacks and policy recalibrations. 

Myanmar people welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping on the street in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, January 17, 2020. /Xinhua Photo

Myanmar people welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping on the street in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, January 17, 2020. /Xinhua Photo

Some 33 agreements were signed at the tail of President Xi's visit. They aimed at speeding up the development of the Kyaukpyu special economic zone in Myanmar's Rakhine state, the China-Myanmar Border Economic Cooperation Zone along the Kunlong-Chinshwehaw border area, the New Yangon City applying state-of-art smart city technologies and sustainable urban design concepts, and comprehensive road, rail, and energy transboundary interconnectivity. The leaders also designated the year 2020 as the China-Myanmar Year of Culture and Tourism to further advance people-to-people exchanges and mutual cultural understanding.

Some Western commentators skeptical of booming China-Myanmar bonds were quick to assert that China is cultivating economic and strategic dependence on the part of Myanmar by stealth through the BRI. Perhaps they should be reminded of the context in which China emerged as Myanmar's most trusted economic partner.   

Between the late 1980s to 2016, Washington placed harsh restrictions on trade, investment, finance, tourism, education, technology transfer, and development assistance vis-à-vis Myanmar on human rights and democracy grounds, leaving the impoverished country in complete economic and diplomatic isolation from the West. Within the region itself, Myanmar failed to identify robust economic growth drivers. With the exception of the Greater Mekong Subregion program, many long-standing development initiatives spearheaded by the Asian Development Bank (e.g., Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand Growth Triangle and the Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines Growth Area) focused primarily on maritime Southeast Asia and not continental and least-developed nations like Myanmar. Japan's engagement, though helpful and generous, was largely confined to the realms of financial sector reforms and institution-building. This goes without saying that intra-ASEAN trade and investment remained too weak to propel Myanmar's economic take-off.

China, by contrast, embraced Myanmar out of pragmatism. China did not pretend, as the West did, that it was within its gift to dictate the development path of Myanmar but nevertheless recognized Myanmar's legitimate quest for economic advancement and social progress. China accordingly offered over the past decades development aid, humanitarian assistance, trade preference and direct investment to Myanmar so that the latter can grow itself out of the economic quagmires resulted from isolation. 

With the launch of the BRI and the CMEC, China now has a greater stake in the economic success of Myanmar than ever before. President Xi's visit to Myanmar was therefore extremely timely and of far-reaching significance. As China steps up its economic engagement and Myanmar picks up growth momentum under the BRI, the time-honored "Paukphaw" friendship will only get more resilience and renewed for the better. Indeed, as Aung San Suu Kyi puts it, China and Myanmar will stand together "till the end of the world."

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