By Joseph Allchin
The delay over the construction of a rail route between China and Burma appears to be nearing an end, with Chinese commerce minister Chen Deming saying that work would soon begin on the ambitious project.
He told Reuters yesterday that Beijing had “wanted to start as soon as possible but because the [new] Myanmar [Burma] government has just been formed and because of their internal problems, we have had to wait”.
The railway connecting China’s southwestern provinces to Burma and on to other Southeast Asian countries is another plank in its ambitious international infrastructure projects, which have even included talk of rail links to as far afield as London.
But the Burma venture will certainly be more about linking their lucrative extractive projects being undertaken in Burma to China, and assisting in the development of landlocked western China, which has lagged behind the eastern seaboard largely because of its inaccessibility to international trade.
This will however change with the trans-Burma Shwe gas pipeline and associated port developments in western Arakan state’s Kyauk Phyu. The pipelines will be able to transport Burmese gas and Middle Eastern and African oil to China, whilst the rail link could do the same for bulkier, solid commodities.
The strategic imperative of bypassing the congested and easily blocked Straits of Malacca will also be met.
The importance of the said link was underscored by Deming, who according to Reuters, told a delegation from China’s southwestern Yunnan province that “We want to start construction this year and it [the Burma link] will be the first line to open”.
Whilst it will streamline the export of Burmese raw materials, there may also be hope that Burma’s own nascent manufacturing industry, principally the garments sector, can benefit from increased connectivity with China. As China’s economy rapidly develops, low wage Burmese labour will become increasingly attractive to the regional giant.
The news of the rail link also follows hot on the heels of the announcement that China will open a truck factory in the country.
What effect the increased transportation will have on Burma’s disputed northern states could also be telling. Many of the ethnic groups there, such as the Kachin and Shan, have strong cultural and economic ties to China, but greater transport links may also threaten their autonomy from Naypyidaw as it seeks to normalise, or even ‘Burmanise’, these restive areas.