China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is often depicted by critics as a grand strategy to trap developing nations in debt, build new trade routes and construct a new world economic order. The asymmetric relationship between China and Myanmar might therefore be expected to generate a range of risks, especially with the giant Kyaukphyu port and special economic zone project located in conflict-prone Rakhine State. Myanmar itself is a perfect storm of hazards for infrastructure development projects. On closer inspection, the myriad challenges are complex but successive military and elected Myanmar governments have demonstrated agency and have not been simply victims of a monolithic neighbor. Nevertheless, the outlook is grim.
Myanmar is torn between two narratives about the BRI. On the one hand, what is China’s signature foreign economic policy initiative offers a much-needed source of financing for infrastructure development and connectivity, when few other sources of funds are available. On the other hand, many question whether such projects favor Chinese interests – including security interests – over those of Myanmar. As a neighbor of China, Myanmar must balance the risks and opportunities presented by the BRI even as it faces its own internal crises, notably of course the civic unrest following the military coup in February 2021 and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Myanmar is not the only high-risk environment for big infrastructure projects across the BRI footprint, but it tends to exhibit all of the possible risks, from poor governance to concerns about debt, security, corruption, environmental destruction and even the balancing of geopolitical power and influence. While the widely circulated narrative during the years of the administration of Donald Trump in the US that China has been trapping developing nations in debt to seize geopolitical assets has been debunked, the question is: Does Myanmar – whose military regime has alienated most other investors – present a “worst case” (from the perspective of those concerned about China’s reach) in which Chinese influence may deliver a new geopolitical asset for Beijing on the Bay of Bengal?
Since its independence in 1948, Myanmar has been wracked by civil conflict, including the infamous pogroms of recent years against Muslim Rohingya communities in Rakhine State. Tragically, the only institution through which national power has been effectively exercised has been the military, the Tatmadaw, which a year ago crushed popular hopes for democratization, by overthrowing the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. Myanmar’s disproportionately large military establishment is intertwined with business interests and has maintained close contacts with China.