By Ding Gang Source: Global Times Published: 2017-3-22
By chance, I watched Asia Rising, a documentary series co-produced by China and South Korea. One scene in the series tells a story of the development of a special economic zone at Mae Sot, a Thai district bordering Myanmar.
I once went there before leaving Thailand four years ago. Back then, the special economic zone at the border was no more than a draft on paper; but now, a number of foreign companies have launched businesses there. The second bridge over the Mae Sot river through which large trucks and vans can pass through is near completion.
Located in the heartland of Southeast Asia, Mae Sot serves as an important hub along the road. It is connected to Myanmar`s Myawaddy and Yangon to the west, Vietnam`s Da Nang to the east, China`s Yunnan Province to the north, and Malaysia and Singapore to the south.
The Myanmar-Thailand trade volume stood at $898 million in fiscal year 2016-17, among which their border trade volume accounted for 80 percent. The corridor from Mat Sot to Myawaddy is the largest border trade port.
The documentary shows that every morning, thousands of Myanmar residents queue up to go through the Customs to get to work and do business in Thailand. Factories in Mae Sot transport their employees via shuttle buses. Trucks loaded with goods are often seen waiting in long lines behind the Customs.
Though more than 100,000 Karen refugees still live in nine camps along the border in Myanmar because of warfare years ago, the growth of border trade ensures their survival.
The lively scenario should not be limited to the Myanmar-Thailand border area. Border trade between China and Myanmar should be just as vigorous.
However, Muse, the largest border port in northern Shan State of Myanmar, is frequently closed due to conflicts between government forces and ethnic armed groups.
According to statistics from Myanmar`s Ministry of Commerce, the trade volume in the Muse township has been declining for the past couple of years. During the first seven months of 2016, the figure was $1.57 billion, $74 million less than the previous year. But, it still managed to make up 69.2 percent of the aggregate border trade volume of the country.
Another spate of conflicts broke out on November 20 last year, bringing the Muse trade to a halt. Myanmar authorities estimated the loss staggered between $12 million to $16 million per day. Muse did not open until early this year but was suspended again by a recent clash.
Southwestern China`s Yunnan Province has come up with a whole set of plans to promote border trade, including establishing economic zones to attract Myanmar laborers and setting up vocational training colleges to help improve the quality of workforce from Myanmar and Laos among other Southeast Asian nations.
In the meantime, the Chinese government has pledged to provide $3 million in aid to Myanmar in the next three years to support its peace process. Nonetheless, the implementation of all these plans has been affected to various degrees by the perennial chaos in northern Myanmar, especially the most recent conflict in the Shan State.
The constant internal warfare in northern Myanmar has become an obstruction to the development of the Belt and Road initiative and must be resolved immediately.
The Belt and Road blueprint initiated by China aims to build up mutually beneficial economic and trade cooperation. However, given a myriad of complicated issues involving politics, ethnic minorities and border division, to further advance the development of the strategy needs political and diplomatic effort apart from massive investment from Chinese companies.
The author is a senior fellow of Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.