China outward bound through Myanmar
By Brian McCartan
CHIANG MAI - Myanmar is set to become an important regional rail hub connecting
China and India with markets in Southeast Asia and beyond should proposed
spending plans come to fruition. As with many infrastructure developments
across the region, Beijing is the driving force behind the ambitious designs.
China plans to construct several routes linking its remote southwestern region
with ports in Myanmar and on to Southeast and South Asia. In particular, a
major rail line is planned to connect Kunming with a new deep-sea port and
special industrial economic zone under construction at Kyaukpyu on Myanmar's
Plans for the route were first announced in the Myanmar Weekly
Eleven News magazine on October 16 and is expected to be finished in 2015.
China is also involved in developing the port and the industrial zone, both of
which are part of its plan to develop a trade outlet for its land-locked
southwestern region and an oil and gas transshipment point connected to oil and
gas pipelines already under construction.
Another rail route will connect the 1,920 kilometers between China's Yunnan
province capital Kunming to Myanmar's former capital and major port Yangon.
Construction will likely build on Myanmar's existing north-south rail line
rather than lay completely new tracks.
This route would also link with a railway connecting to a new port project at
Dawei on the country's southern coast. A component of the port project
announced late last year is the construction of a new rail line between Dawei
A third route will run through Myanmar's eastern Shan State connecting Kunming
with the northern Thai town of Chiang Rai and from there link into the Thai
rail network. This link, together with a route currently being surveyed in
Laos, will enable the shipment of goods by rail between China, Cambodia,
Thailand and Singapore.
Wang Mengshu, an academic at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, told Chinese
media in December that "an expert delegation from the Ministry of Railroads
visited [Myanmar] and Laos in mid-November to conduct a survey: as soon as a
route for the China-[Myanmar] railroad is determined, construction could start
in as early as two months, and may serve as the main transportation route of
China's [rail] link with countries in Southeast Asia".
Two additional routes connecting southwestern China with Myanmar's rail network
are planned between the Chinese town of Dali with Myitkyina and Lashio. Both
Myanmar towns are large trading centers and railheads. China has also
contributed to upgrade Myanmar's rail stock: in October 2010, Beijing donated
thirty engines from the rail transport department as "friendship gifts",
according to the official Xinhua news agency.
Once completed, the new routes will strengthen China's already substantial
economic ties with Myanmar and contribute to a more integrated regional
economy. China is already in the midst of an estimated US$1 trillion project to
expand its domestic railway system from the current 78,000 kilometers to
110,000 by 2012 and 120,000 by 2020. The project aims to connect all major
Chinese cities with high-speed lines with trains capable of speeds of over 200
kilometers per hour.
Myanmar occupies an especially important position in Beijing's ambitious plans
to construct a high-speed rail network linking China with the economies of
Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Much of this network,
especially through Myanmar, corresponds with the 14,000 kilometer Trans-Asian
Railway initiative the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia
and the Pacific (UNESCAP) first proposed in the 1960's. If completed as
planned, it will represent the largest infrastructure project in history.
The exact routes of the lines are still unclear, but they will follow three
general directions. A northern route will extend through Mongolia, Kazakhstan,
Russia, Ukraine and on to connect to the European rail network. A middle route
will go through Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Iran to Turkey. A
southern route will link China to Singapore through Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, and
Thailand. Currently, China's only rail connection to Southeast Asia runs to
One major obstacle for the project is Beijing's insistence on the use of the
same gauge of tracks as its domestic high-speed network. The rail systems in
Myanmar and other Southeast Asian nations use different gauges, meaning it will
be necessary to replace current tracks or lay new ones to make the connection.
Another is the high cost and how it will be shared. China is reportedly in
talks about track gauge, line direction and expense allocations with the tipped
17 countries. However, many observers are skeptical of estimates that the
network could be completed over the next 10 years. Beijing must also ensure the
long-term profitability of the railways in order to make the huge investment
necessary for the project justifiable. So far the only portion of China's
planned network actually under construction is a link between Yunnan province
and northern Myanmar.
China has offered to bankroll the construction of new routes and upgrades to
Myanmar's existing system in exchange for access to the country's rich natural
resources. Wang Mengshu, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University and a key
member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, told German Magazine Der Spiegel
in March "We will obtain commodities that the huge Chinese population needs.
[Myanmar], for instance, has no money but plenty of resources. We will help
such underdeveloped countries to build railroads and to exploit their
resources. Many countries have oil, gas and water resources."
In addition to providing expanded export routes for Chinese goods from its
remote southwestern region, the railways will also enable more efficient
transportation of energy resources from suppliers in the Middle East and
Africa. New deep-sea ports at Cox's Bazaar in Bangladesh and Kyaukphyu and
Dawei in Myanmar will with new rail links cut almost in half the distance
needed to transport oil from the Middle East and Africa by sea.
The new ports and rail links will provide alternative routes for Chinese
strategic resources that avoid potential maritime bottleneck areas such as the
Malacca Straits, where currently as much as 80% of China's imported energy
travels. Strategic analysts have noted that the US could block those energy
flows in a potential conflict with China.
China and Bangladesh have discussed establishing a rail link between Kunming
and a new deep sea port project under construction at Cox's Bazaar via
Myanmar's rail network. An agreement with Dhaka has yet to be signed, but the
proposed 111-kilometer route is expected to pass through eastern Bangladesh to
Gundum in Myanmar where it will either connect with Myanmar's existing rail
network or with the new high-speed route.
Regardless of Chinese assistance, Dhaka seems eager to construct a railway to
the Myanmar border. In July 2010, Dhaka announced plans to build a railway to
the Myanmar border by 2014 at a cost of $260 million. Construction of the
single-track meter gauge route was set to begin in July, but some Bangladeshi
observers say this may be more talk than substance. Chinese involvement,
however, would put more financial firepower behind Dhaka's plans.
Bangladesh-Myanmar ties have been problematic in recent years due to disputes
over their shared border, Muslim Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, as well as
smuggling and ownership disputes of lucrative offshore oil and gas deposits. A
new rail link, however, may go some way to interconnecting their economies and
reducing the possibilities of further disputes.
India, not to be outdone by Chinese financing of Myanmar's railway
infrastructure, authorized its state-owned EXIM Bank to lend $60 million to
Naypyidaw to finance railway projects. The announcement of the funding came
during a recent visit by Myanmar leader Senior General Than Shwe to New Delhi
where he met with Indian leaders including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
India's assistance is a component of its ambitious Mekong-Ganga Cooperation
(MGC) project to link New Delhi with Hanoi by rail. India signed a pact for the
project in 2000 with Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia. As part of
the project, it has extended a $56 million line of credit to Naypyidaw to
construct modern railway facilities in its central and northwestern regions.
New Delhi has also assisted in the upgrading of the central Yangon-Mandalay
In order to connect the two countries by rail, Indian Railways has begun
initial preparations to extend a broad gauge track from Jiribam in southwestern
Manipur state to Moreh on the border with Myanmar. The line will connect with a
proposed track in Myanmar from the current railhead at Segyi in its western
Sagaing Division to the town of Tamu on the Myanmar-India border.
An established rail link between India and Myanmar would also allow for the
more efficient shipment of goods between India and China. Trade between the two
countries has been fast growing. China is now India's largest trading partner,
with bilateral trade projected to have reached $60 billion last year. While
rivals for influence in the region, especially in Myanmar, their economies are
becoming increasingly interdependent despite complaints by some Indian
businessmen carping about a trade imbalance which favors China.
Brian McCartan is a Bangkok-based freelance journalist. He may be reached