Earlier this week, the news magazine Frontier reported that a Chinese state company had quietly resumed preliminary work on a railway running from southern China to the Myanmar coast in Rakhine State.
The railway, which is being developed by the state-run Myanma Railways and the China Railway Eryuan Engineering Group (CREEG), will connect China to Myanmar in two phases: the first linking Muse on the China-Myanmar border to Mandalay, and a second running from Mandalay to Kyaukphyu on the Indian Ocean.
Citing two senior officials from the state-run Myanma Railways, the Frontier article stated that a joint committee made up of CREEG and Myanmar junta officials recently met with officials from the General Administration Department and the Ministry of Construction about the route.
“A joint committee of the China Eryuan Engineering Group and Myanmar’s transport ministry have been meeting in Myanmar to decide on the railroad lines, discuss where they’re going to lay the tracks for the Mandalay-Kyaukphyu portion of the railway and which townships the train route will pass through,” a Myanma Railways official told the publication last month. Another official stated that Chinese workers “have been coming and going [from Myanmar] regularly.”
The Muse-Kyaukphyu rail project is one of the headline projects of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), a clutch of infrastructure projects designed to connect China’s Yunnan province to Myanmar’s Indian Ocean coast. In addition to the railway, CMEC, which was established in 2017, features plans for highways, border trade zones, and urban development projects. The overall goal of CMEC is to give China access to the ocean via Myanmar, thus moderating its heavy reliance on the Straits of Malacca, a choke-point through which a majority of China’s oil imports flow.
Plans for the railway long predate the establishment of CMEC. Indeed, in some ways the project represents something of an update of Britain’s nineteenth-century ambitions, ultimately abandoned, to link its Burmese colonies with southern China by rail in the late nineteenth century. (The existing British-built railway line ends at Lashio, in northern Shan State, about 120 kilometers from the Chinese border.) However, progress on the new project has been slow, a reflection of the challenging terrain that it will be forced to traverse, and the fact that the planned route bisects active conflict zones in Shan and Rakhine states.
Myanma Railways and CREEG first signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the project in 2011, but it lapsed within a few years. After 2017, when Myanmar came under fresh Western pressure for the military’s vicious assaults on the Rohingya communities of Rakhine State, the Chinese government took the opportunity to press for the project’s revival. In 2019, the two sides agreed to begin a feasibility study on an initial section of the line running from Muse to Mandalay. At the time, the cost of the project was estimated at nearly $9 billion.
Following the military coup in February 2021, an environmental assessment was conducted on the Muse-Mandalay segment of the line and approved last year, according to Frontier. However, preparations for the second section of the line, linking Mandalay to Kyaukphyu, have stalled, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the chaos unleashed by the coup, and a general wariness on the part of Myanmar’s military administration, which remains cautious about sleep-walking into an overreliance on its large northern neighbor.
Another interesting revelation from the Frontier report is the fact that the route of the railway has shifted slightly so that it includes Nyaung-U, the gateway to Myanmar’s premier archaeological site Bagan, in an apparent bid to develop the country’s moribund tourist sector. According to a transport planning official, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the military-backed State Administration Council (SAC), decided to choose this route over three alternatives. “The SAC chairman directed us to go with route number one [via Bagan] for tourism purposes and to develop the parts of central Myanmar where the railway would pass,” the official told Frontier.
Despite these stirrings of activity, construction on the railway seems a long way off. A project of this complexity and cost would be challenging even in times of peace, but the security situation has only worsened along much of the planned route since the 2021 coup. In particular, armed resistance has erupted across parts of central Myanmar’s dry zone that the rail line will traverse, and Frontier cited resistance figures as saying that they would launch attacks on the project, should construction proceed.
The Transport Planning official conceded that the “political mess” that has followed the coup has caused “a lot of trouble in the transport sector” – an understatement to say the least. Sources cited in the article stated that construction on the first phase of the project will not begin until at least 2025. As it stands, even that seems like a wildly optimistic projection.
But the fact that the project is once again on the agenda suggests the Chinese government is doubling down on its support for the Myanmar coup government. Two years after the military’s disastrous seizure of power, Beijing seems to be judging that the junta will eventually prevail over the country’s decentralized resistance forces, or create enough of a stalemate that China can safely advance its economic and strategic interests in the country.