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Ports, trains and trade: Xi to offer Myanmar billion-dollar bounty

  • Published at 04:44 pm January 15th, 2020
Xi Jinping
File photo: China's President Xi Jinping claps his hands at the opening session of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing on May 22,2020 AFP

The first segment of the proposed $8.9 billion high-speed rail link from China's landlocked Yunnan province to Myanmar's west coast will cut through the border town of Muse to former capital Mandalay

A high-speed rail line to the east, a deep-sea port to the west, and a makeover for commercial heart Yangon - Chinese leader Xi Jinping arrives in Myanmar on Friday laden with investment pledges worth billions which could reshape the country.

Here are five of the main projects - and some of the issues plaguing them:

The big deal

The crown jewel of Xi's two-day visit will be a $1.3 billion deep-sea port off Myanmar's troubled western Rakhine state.

The Kyaukphyu port will serve as Beijing's gateway to the Indian Ocean.

Myanmar has successfully hammered down the price from $7.2 billion to swerve fears of a Chinese debt-trap, but will still pick up 30% of the bill.

Alongside the port, swathes of paddy fields and teak forests are poised to be transformed into a vast industrial zone of garment and food processing factories.

Officials insist ethnic Rakhine will be the first in line for some of the 400,000 jobs the zone is slated to bring - but many suspect the benefits will mainly be siphoned off outside the state.

The port is the centrepiece of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) project - a key thread in China's global Belt and Road vision.

The $8.9bn train

The first segment of the proposed $8.9 billion high-speed rail link from China's landlocked Yunnan province to Myanmar's west coast will cut through the border town of Muse to former capital Mandalay.

But engineering challenges through Myanmar's hilly Shan State would likely be dwarfed by security concerns.

The region is awash with weapons and a centre for meth production as armed rebels and militias jostle for a share of any potential windfall.

They will first need to be appeased and reassured the rail link will not jeopardize their income or security.

Border disorder

Also in discussion would be overhauling the border zone in Shan state with three special economic zones.

This could raise the stakes for the two countries' traders - both above board and clandestine.

The vast majority of pre-cursor chemicals used to fuel Myanmar's multi-billion-dollar illicit meth industry flood across the porous border.

Expect trade barriers to be removed and factories to mushroom - but also an uptick in violence as militias and armed groups try to cash in on the spoils.

Yangon makeover

Yangon authorities hope to revolutionize the sprawling, gridlocked commercial hub by creating a whole new town on the west bank of the city's river.

They say the satellite city will help solve problems of congestion, overpopulation and the lack of electricity and water.

But environmental concerns, a lack of transparency and corruption allegations are already dogging the planned $1.7 billion scheme.

Elephant in the room

The $3.6 billion, 6,000-megawatt Myitsone dam could eclipse the visit.

Any move to revive the suspended project in Myanmar's northern Kachin state would provoke a huge outcry.

But if it is left off the table, it will be the elephant in the room.

As vice president in 2009, Xi personally signed off on the Myitsone dam with Myanmar's then-military junta.

But public anger thwarted the project and it has remained in limbo since 2011.

The dam would flood an area the size of Singapore and cause irreparable damage to the famed Ayeyarwady River, critics say.

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