Commerce and Conflict: Navigating Myanmar’s China Relationship

Aerial photo taken on Dec. 9, 2018 shows the railway arch bridge across the Nujiang River in southwest China’s Yunnan Province. With a grand arch bridge erected on Monday morning, Chinese constructors have built the longest-spanning railway arch bridge with a single span of 490 meters. The bridge is a key project of the 220-km-long Dali-Ruili railway which is a key section of the China-Myanmar international railway corridor linking Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan, with Yangon of Myanmar. (Xinhua)

Report 305 / Asia 30 March 2020 Crisis Group

Isolated from the international community, Myanmar is deepening its dependence on China. But closer ties, Beijing-backed megaprojects and private Chinese investment carry both risks and opportunities. Both states should proceed carefully to ensure local communities benefit and avoid inflaming deadly armed conflicts.

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Crisis Group conducted the fieldwork for this report before the COVID-19 pandemic. Some dynamics examined in this publication may have changed in the meantime. Moving forward, we will be factoring the impact of the pandemic into our research and recommendations, as well as offering dedicated coverage of how the outbreak is affecting conflicts around the world.

What’s new? The Rohingya crisis has strained Myanmar’s relations with the West and much of the Global South, pushing it to rely more on diplomatic and economic support from China. With a China-Myanmar Economic Corridor proceeding, and smaller private-sector projects proliferating, China’s investments in Myanmar are poised to shift into higher gear.

Why does it matter? Many of these projects are located in or near areas of active armed conflict, and are often implemented without sufficient transparency, consultation with local communities or awareness of the local context. They risk empowering armed actors, heightening local grievances and amplifying anti-Chinese sentiment, which could lead to a popular backlash.

What should be done? China needs to take more responsibility for ensuring that its projects benefit local communities and Myanmar’s economy, and do not exacerbate conflict. The Myanmar government should enhance its China expertise to negotiate and regulate projects more effectively. Both sides need to practice greater transparency and meaningful community consultation.


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