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How China is using new railway line to extend influence in Myanmar


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At one of the furthest ends of this vast country, there is a new train line, and it speaks volumes about China’s ambitions in the region.

The southwestern province of Yunnan is rural, remote, and parts of it are still extremely poor. This line is a slightly incongruous flash of modernity, slicing through the mountains.

We joined it on its final stretch, from the tourist spot of Dali right up to the end of the line at a small mountain town called Lincang, just a few hours’ drive from the border with Myanmar.

The line itself is an excellent example of China’s exemplary ‘bullet’ trains; modern, clean, organised and bang on time.

Chatting to passengers along the way, it’s also clear it has made an enormous difference to their lives.

“It makes things much more convenient,” says Fong Hong Sui who is from this area and travelling for business.

“Before, there wasn’t this train and I would have to take a coach which took at least seven or eight hours.”

But this line was clearly not designed for people alone.

The huge terminal at Lincang, complete with large freight yard and cargo cranes, says it all; this place was built to transport trade and lots of it – from China to Myanmar and beyond.

This trade line only opened in 2021 and while it has been long in the planning, it’s a clear sign of the ongoing support that Myanmar is receiving from its powerful neighbour.

When the military Junta first seized power in 2021, like many other countries in the region China initially refrained from comment. It spent the best part of the following two years watching how things panned out, while retaining ties with opposition groups.

But that appears to have changed. In fact in May, China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang paid a visit to Myanmar and was filmed meeting with the Junta’s leader Min Aung Hlaing, a figure Chinese officials had initially shunned.

The message was clear; China was implicitly throwing its support behind this illegal regime and offering a real lifeline to its troubled leaders.

China is Myanmar’s largest trading partner

The extent to which this is invaluable to the Junta cannot be overstated.

Indeed, China is Myanmar’s largest trading partner, buying 27% of all its goods from metals, precious stones and rare earth elements. The energy market is the most important section of Myanmar’s economy, and China bought 38% of its gas exports in 2022.

But Chinese companies, including some that are state-owned, are also selling significant quantities of arms to Myanmar, over £200 million worth since the coup according to a recent UN report. The majority of these sales went directly to the Junta and there is evidence some of the products have been used in the civil war.

But what is in it for China, a country that notoriously dislikes instability? Well, the Lincang trade route offers some indication as to what the motivation might be.

China ‘very aware’ of security risks

In fact, the real value of this line is that it offers China passage not just to, but through its neighbour to the valuable sea ports beyond.

A trial run before the line was officially opened saw goods linked all the way from the Chinese city of Chengdu, through Myanmar and onto Singapore by sea.

And it is this Indian Ocean access that is particularly prized by China. Without the route through Myanmar, goods would have to be taken the long way around via the Malacca Strait, a route considered by China to not just be long but insecure.

“There is some pragmatism here from China,” explains Chim Lee, an expert on China-Myanmar relations at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

“China is interested in pushing through there, but it’s also very aware of the security risks and economic risks in the country.”

Ultimately, China knows its support buys influence and leverage and there are many things it gains from a healthy influence in Myanmar, not least natural resources and balance of power interests in the South East Asian region.

There may also be a calculation that it wants to avoid influences from America and the West prevailing. But there is no doubt the conflict has stymied China’s ambitions.

Indeed a little further up the border in the town of Ruili, while the crossing is a tourist attraction, the actual traffic passing through in terms of people and trade is much lower than it was.

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