By Nan Lwin 16 June 2020
YANGON—Myanmar’s Ministry of Construction has unveiled four projects to be implemented under China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), including expressways, a bridge and a tunnel, which will form crucial links in trade routes with China.
Speaking at a press conference on Monday in Myanmar’s capital Naypyitaw, Deputy Construction Minister U Kyaw Lin said the government had agreed with China to implement the four “early-harvest projects” as part of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), which is a key component of the BRI.
The four projects were not among those announced when the two countries drew up their initial agreements on implementing BRI projects.
During the 2nd BRI Forum in Beijing last year, which was attended by Myanmar State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar and China signed a document referring to nine early-harvest infrastructure projects under the CMEC. However, the only details released by the government at that time concerned three economic cooperation zones in Kachin and Shan states and the Muse-Mandalay railway project.
Myanmar signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with China establishing the CMEC in 2018. The 1,700-kilometer-long corridor will connect Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan province, with Myanmar’s major economic hubs, linking first to Mandalay in central Myanmar before branching east to Yangon and west to the Kyaukphyu SEZ in Rakhine State.
The ministry said it plans to construct an expressway connecting Muse in Shan State with Mandalay via Tigyaing in eastern Sagaing Region. Muse, which sits across the border from Yunnan province, is the largest trade portal between the two nations. Mandalay is central Myanmar’s commercial center and the country’s second-largest city. The expressway is envisioned as another lifeline for China-Myanmar border trade.
China earlier announced plans to implement the 431-km-long Muse-Mandalay Railway, which would connect with China’s rail network in Ruili, Yunnan province across the border from Muse. The railway is also expected to be a key part of the economic corridor.
Additionally, the minister said, the government has agreed to implement a highway connecting Naypyitaw with Kyaukphyu via Thayet and Aung Lan in Magwe Region. The port of Kyaukphyu is crucial to China’s BRI. The planned Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) is expected to boost development in China’s landlocked Yunnan Province and provide China with direct access to the Indian Ocean, allowing its oil imports to bypass the Strait of Malacca.
During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trip to Myanmar early this year, the two sides signed a document to mark the handing over by China of a feasibility study (FS) on the Mandalay-Tigyaing-Muse Expressway and Kyaukphyu-Naypyitaw Highway projects.
According to the minister, the early-harvest projects also include the construction of a new bridge over the Salween River in Kunlong, and an outer ring road in Chinshwehaw, both in the Kokang Self-Administered Zone (SAZ) in northern Shan State. Both projects are expected to boost trade with China, and form part of a cross-border economic cooperation zone between the SAZ and China’s Mengding in Lincang, a prefecture-level city in southwestern Yunnan.
The 4.2-km-long bridge will be located on the Theinni-Kunlong-Chinshwehaw Road, comprising a span of about 323 meters and linking roads measuring about 3.9 km. In March 2018, Myanmar and China signed a letter agreeing to implement the new Kunlong Bridge project. During Xi’s visit, the two sides signed a project implementation agreement including a Chinese aid grant.
Preparation for the bridge project is already under way, U Kyaw Lin said.
“[The two projects] will create a more direct route to Lincang,” he said.
Also on the early-harvest list is the Watalone Tunnel project on Taunggyi-Loilin Road in Shan State, which is part of the Shan Highway project. Initially, the government plans to construct three sections to pass through three mountains: Khauk Nwe Mountain 1, Khauk New Mountain 2 and Wa Ta Lone Mountain. The project aims to create a safer and faster route for travelers, as the current route is prone to accidents due to its many curves and steep slopes.
The government recently upgraded a stretch of highway linking Taunggyi and Hsipaw via Loilin—a shortcut connecting northern and southern Shan State. The road will eventually also connect to Lashio, the main commercial hub in northern Shan State to which many BRI projects are expected to connect.
According to the Ministry of Construction, the Wa Ta Lone Mountain segment will be 8.4 km long and is expected to cost nearly US$97 million (134.46 billion kyats). Originally, the project was expected to be funded by loans from South Korea and international development organizations, but these plans have been dropped. The minister did not reveal why the plan had changed.
During Xi’s visit in January, the Ministry of Construction signed an MOU with China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd to conduct an FS for the Wa Ta Lone Tunnel project.
The deputy minister said that even though the projects are on the early-harvest list, discussions still need to be held between both sides on their actual implementation.
“We have yet to discuss implementation plans [for the projects],” U Kyaw Lin said.