Interview: Chen Bo
In what way will Myanmar take advantage of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to develop its transport infrastructure?
CHEN BO: The BRI initiative is an ambitious project that looks to improve connectivity at a global scale, with China at its epicentre. The initiative aims not only at connecting the country with its South-east Asian neighbours, but also at improving connectivity within those countries. Therefore, the aim of the project is to create a sophisticated country-to-country infrastructure network, mainly through the construction of new roads, railways and sea ports.
Myanmar is a latecomer to the process, but we expect to witness an increasing number of infrastructure projects in the coming years. Despite some regulatory and financial challenges, the government clearly recognises the pivotal importance of investing in infrastructure to improve the general wealth and income of the population. Conversely, China is conscious about Myanmar’s economic potential. The country boasts a wealth of natural resources, fertile land and a sizeable internal market with more than 50m consumers. Moreover, China also recognizes that with better infrastructure, it could provide Beijing with an alternative strategic access to the Indian Ocean, just like the pipeline connecting Kyaukphyu to Kunming demonstrates. Myanmar and China also share a long land border that extends for more than 2000 km. Furthermore, China is Myanmar’s largest trading partner and commercial relations between both countries will be greatly boosted if the connectivity between them is increased.
In the 1970s China was going through the same development process, during which time poor infrastructure was a symptom of China’s underdevelopment. Since then, the country has accumulated a lot of experience and know-how, and significantly expanded its capital base. However, it is important to note that despite China’s economic progress, we still define ourselves as a developing country. That, I would say, is one of the key elements for the successful implementation of the BRI initiative: we are closer to, and identify with developing nations rather than developed ones in the West.
In addition to this, we believe that China’s investment in infrastructure will generate more value in Africa and Asia than elsewhere. The relative decline of the US and Europe is paving the way for the emergence of a more confident China with global peaceful ambitions, willing to invest in win-win cooperation projects. By remaining truthful to its principles of sovereignty and non-interference in the domestic political affairs of the countries in which it invests, China wants to establish itself as a partner, providing advice to Myanmar authorities. China has the financial muscle and is more than willing to deploy its capital overseas. The BRI provides a good opportunity for Myanmar to invest in the development of its infrastructure and benefit from technology transfer.
How will the planned road infrastructure investments help unify the country’s internal market?
CHEN BO: China has already faced some of the same challenges Myanmar faces today. Today, we can confidently say that investment in better connectivity and infrastructure has become part of the country’s DNA. Policymakers quickly understood that once you create this infrastructure, increasing economic activity and development will inevitably follow.
Investment in upgrades to the existing road network is essential to reducing distances and bringing together isolated communities. Road connectivity allows for more efficient commercial transactions, reduces transportation costs, creates more incentives for industrial activity and set the foundations for the formation of a stronger internal market. Quality road infrastructure also increases the number of external investors who wish to come to the country.
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