China-Myanmar Rail Link: Enhancing Cross-Border Connectivity

On 25-26 September 2023, China hosted the Global Sustainable Transport Forum in Beijing, where Vice Premier He Lifeng attended and read a congratulatory letter from President Xi Jinping. The forum aimed to promote global transport cooperation and provide the world with new opportunities through its own development. Mya Tun Oo, deputy prime minister and transport minister of the State Administration Council (SAC), was in attendance and discussed the Muse-Mandalay rail project with the Chinese.

The proposed Muse-Mandalay railway project (MMRP) is a major part of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) and the broader Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of China. The project, proposed by Myanmar’s state-run Myanma Railways and the China Railway Eryuan Engineering Group (CREEG), would link Kunming and Mandalay through the Muse border in Shan State. The project is projected to cost US$9 billion. Under the CMEC framework, the line from Mandalay to the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (KP SEZ) and the New Yangon City will be extended.

Mya Tun Oo visited China Railway Group Co Ltd headquarters to discuss a feasibility study for the Muse-Mandalay and Mandalay-Kyaukphyu rail sections, which will allow Chinese trade to bypass the congested Strait of Malacca and boost development in Yunnan.

The Myanmar military has been unconcerned with the environmental impact and sovereignty of the MMRP project, which was signed in 2011 between the two countries. However, work halted in 2014 due to protests and activism in the Rakhine state. The preparation of the bilateral MoU for the MMRP project was executed in 2019, and the project was among the 33 agreements signed by President Xi Jinping during his visit to Myanmar in January 2020.

The Myanmar military’s urgency to move ahead with the project stems from its bid to please China, which provides it with diplomatic protection in international forums. Support from China remains a critical factor for the SAC to continue in a widespread civil war situation. The Chinese bid to access the Bay of Bengal through the CMEC aligns with the Myanmar military’s avowed aim of establishing the country as an economic corridor and attracting Chinese investment.

The frequency and intensity of engagement between the two countries have picked up, as have expressions of commitment to their economic relations. Military chief Min Aung Hlaing has recently highlighted the potential trade benefits of a Kyaukphyu-Mandalay railway and suggested building another line between Chinshwehaw and Lashio near the Chinese border.

The Myanmar government has deepened ties with Beijing, with nine SAC ministers visiting China in September. Mya Tun Oo has committed to establishing Myanmar as an economic corridor by partnering in the BRI project and the Mekong-Lancang Cooperation projects.

Consultations between Myanmar and China have begun to kickstart a long-delayed project, with the military expected to handle domestic concerns and Beijing taking responsibility for dealing with ethnic armed organizations in northern Myanmar. In February 2023, China’s special envoy for Myanmar affairs, Deng Xijun, held meetings with the Kachin Independence Army, the United Wa State Army, and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army to discuss trade and economic cooperation, focusing on the MMRP. Deng reportedly pushed the insurgents to reach a cease-fire with the military government.

Three groups, the MNDAA, Ta’ang National Liberation Army, and Rakhine Arakan Army, have pledged to protect international investment and combat violence in Shan and Rakhine states. Myanmar and China are increasingly dependent on each other, with Myanmar’s military relying on Beijing for survival and remaining a key component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project. The final chapter of the MMRP project is yet to be written.

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