China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) got a high octane boost last week, when Myanmar — facing the heat from the West because of the Rohingya refugee crisis — inked an agreement with Beijing to establish a cross border economic corridor.

The 1,700-km corridor will provide China yet another node to access the Indian Ocean. Already Gwadar port — one of the terminal points of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) — has become Beijing’s star gateway to the Arabian Sea.

“The China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) can become a major factor in lifting the economies of landlocked southwest China, which include the Provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan, by providing them a passage to the Indian Ocean,” says Long Xingchun, Associate Professor of China’s West Normal University, in a conversation with The Hindu.

The CMEC will also reduce Beijing’s trade and energy reliance on the Malacca straits — the narrow passage that links the Indian Ocean with the Pacific. Chinese planners worry that the military domination over the Malacca straits of the United States — a country with which it is already engaged in a trade war — can threaten one of China’s major economic lifeline.

The CMEC will run from Yunnan Province of China to Mandalay in Central Myanmar. From there it will head towards Yangon, before terminating at the Kyaukpyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) on the Bay of Bengal. “The corridor connects Yunnan and three important economic centres in Myanmar… and aims to promote the economic integration of the region,” says China’s state-run Global Times.

China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), Beijing’s top planning body that signed a memorandum of understanding with Myanmar on September 9, stitched the CMEC with the BRI. The CMEC will focus on 12 areas including basic infrastructure, construction, manufacturing, agriculture, transport, finance, human resource development and telecommunications. Joint Working Groups and committees will be formed to implement the projects.

In August, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) opened a new centre in Yangon, which could help fund some of the CMEC driven projects, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

Three factors, including the ascending pressure on Naypyidaw from human rights groups and western governments appear to have reinforced the China-Myanmar bond.

“Domestically, the Myanmarese economy is growing very slowly because of the lack of investment. Globally, there has been talk of sanctions against Myanmar over the Rohingya issue. So more than ever, the country needs China,” Global Times quoted Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences professor Zhu Zhenming as saying.

India’s tepid enthusiasm for the previously proposed Bangladesh China India Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor also appears to have persuaded China to head for the CMEC. “The CMEC was proposed during Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Myanmar last November, because India has not been acting on the BCIM sub regional cooperation proposal. So it is better for China to go for bilateral cooperation with Myanmar and simultaneously wait for India’s participation,” says Prof. Long.

The Chinese academic spotlighted that in the future, the CMEC can be integrated with a much larger connectivity network including the BCIM or the Kunming to Kolkata corridor, as well as the India proposed Bhutan Bangladesh India Nepal (BBIN) initiative — a major plank of New Delhi’s Act East Policy.

China is also backing the CMEC to impart greater focus to its energy security. Crude deliveries through a 771-km China Myanmar oil pipeline from Kyaukpyu to Kunming, capital of China’s Yunnan Province, began in 2017. A parallel natural gas pipeline from Myanmar also terminates in Yunnan.

Despite its promise, the CMEC faces serious security challenges. The corridor will run through insurgency hit areas in the Shan and Kachin States. Unsurprisingly, Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi met with Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe in Naypyidaw in June for talks.