Reviving the Silk Road

How China’s plan to revive ancient trading routes will redraw the world map


China’s consul-general in Mandalay, Mr Wang Yu. Photo: Mark Yang

China’s consul-general in Mandalay, Mr Wang Yu. Photo: Mark Yang

An interview with Mr Wang Yu, China’s consul-general, Mandalay

China has embarked on an ambitious plan to promote land and sea trade routes inspired by the ancient Silk Road that linked it to Central Asia and the Mediterranean 1,000 years ago. It has pledged to invest US$40 billion in a special fund to promote what is officially known as the 21st Century Maritime Silk Route Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Development Project.

The land and sea trade routes will “break the connectivity bottleneck” in Asia, Chinese President Xi Jinping said last November. It is part of a major longterm plan to revive an ancient trading route and redraw the world map, with Asia at its heart.

China’s consul-general in Mandalay, Mr Wang Yu, held a news conference on March 8 to discuss the Silk Road projects and later spoke to Mizzima Weekly’s Mark Yang.

What are some of the project’s biggest challenges?

Infrastructure is one of the problems. The main task is to build the infrastructure, the road connections so that the exchanges among China, Europe and Africa become easier, more economical and more smooth.

When will the project be fully implemented?

It’s difficult to anticipate because it’s a huge task, and also all the countries along this Road and Belt have different development levels. They have different requirements. Even with one country, to fulfill the task, it will take more than 10 to 20 years. So, it’s difficult to anticipate how many years it will take. But, we will do our best to promote this Road and Belt.

A release issued at the news conference refers to both the “Economic Belt” and the “Silk Road”. What is the difference between them?

The Belt mainly regards with the continental links from China’s east to Europe and Africa. The Belt includes three roads. One is through the Central Asia to Europe. One is through Southeast Asia to South Asia to Europe. Another one is also through the Central Asia, to Iran, then to Europe, three main categories. This is the Belt. The Road is mainly regarding the ocean, from the port cities, through the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean, along the Indian Ocean countries, then to Africa. That’s the difference between the Belt and the Road.

Are high-speed rail links part of this project?

There are five key issues. This highspeed railway is one of the five. One is the policy issue. Another one is infrastructure, which includes high-speed railways. In the category of infrastructure, there are communication, energy and telecommunication. The third one is the trade, trade connection. The fourth one is the financial, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is in the starting-up stage now. The fifth one is the people connection.

Will there be a Beijing-Bangkok high-speed rail link?

Not Beijing to Bangkok, but Kunming to Bangkok. Both Chinese government and Thailand government has agreed to implement that high-speed railway. It’s high-speed railway, but not so high, it’s below 200 kilometres an hour. Beijing to Europe, we are also promoting this high-speed railway. We have discussed this with the Central European countries.

How long will it take to build the Kunming-Bangkok railway?

We have started to build it. It would take five to six years. Kunming to the border of Laos, we have already built. We will extend it to Laos and then to Bangkok. Kunming to Ruili rail link is also built. If we get agreement with Myanmar government, we will extend the rail link to Myanmar cities.

Which parts of Myanmar will be included in the Silk Road Economic Belt?

All parts of Myanmar can be involved. For example, the Silk Belt: one is from China to Southeast Asia then to South Asia, it includes Myanmar’s north part. And also, regarding the Maritime Silk Road, it connects China ports to Yangon port to the south part of Myanmar. So, the whole part of Myanmar could be involved.

Which ports in China will be connected to the port of Yangon?

There are many ports in China along the coast. But, we have made a port from Fujian Province as a starting port because 2,000 years ago, the Maritime Silk Road started from that port.

How will the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank support the Belt and Road project?

According to the estimate by the Asian Development Bank, the investment in infrastructure in the Asian countries needs $800 billion every year. AIIB will provide certain amounts of money to the developing countries to solve the financial shortages to make investments.

Myanmar is a founding country of AIIB. How will the bank function?

In AIIB, there is a group of founding countries. The last date to apply to become a founding country is March 31st this year. Now there are altogether 44 countries which want to become the founding country. The shares of countries have not yet been decided because it will depend on how many countries want to become a founding country. When it is 30 founding countries, the share will be larger. Now, it becomes 44, so the portion of share will be smaller. How to separate the shares, they have not decided yet. The founding countries will get the shares according to the amount of money they are allowed to put in to AIIB.

Beijing’s new silk roads - Red arrows, by land; blue arrows, by sea.

What is the Silk Road Fund?

China has declared $40 billion to be put in the Silk Road Fund. For other countries, I don’t have exact information on how much they will put in the Fund. AIIB is in its initial stage, and also the Silk Road Fund is in the very early stage.

China says in the news release it will support the development of countries along the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Road. What kind of support will Myanmar receive from China?

Myanmar is on the process of development. So we need to cooperate with Myanmar. Firstly, we need to see what Myanmar needs. What Myanmar government wants the Chinese government to do, to cooperate with Myanmar. If Myanmar wants to build a road, wants to build an economic zone, wants to promote the trade, wants to promote telecommunications, after we understand what Myanmar needs, then we could cooperate and work together. Myanmar is a close friend of China. Of course, we hope our neighbour, our brother, to develop soundly, to make the people live in higher standards and in decent lives. As Myanmar has already agreed to support the Silk Road Belt and the Road, I think after close cooperation of Myanmar and China, it would achieve the goals of the Silk Road Project.

Apart from Myanmar, which other nations on the Belt and Road are developing countries?

Along the Silk Road Belt and Road, one end is China, and another end is Europe. Between China and Europe, along the middle, most countries are the developing ones. All these developing countries, they want to develop. So we can cooperate to develop in a faster way.

China is also a developing country. Although it owns the second largest GDP in the world, if we look at the average GDP, China is still about the 80th. So China is still a developing country. With other developing countries, we want to develop together.

The news release says China will promote the development of industrial parks along the Silk Road Economic Belt.

According to our experience, by building Industrial Parks, you can collect a lot of enterprises to manufacture in these parks. In these parks, they can share a lot of human resources, enjoy special policies, [and] the manufacturers, they can lower their costs. So they can sell their products cheaper for the benefits of the local people. Along this Belt and Road, we can build a lot of industrial parks.

For example, in Myanmar, you have Thilawa Special Economic Zone where foreigners can enjoy special economic policies, and Kyaukphyu Industrial Park which includes a deep sea port. In Mandalay, there is also Myo Tha Industrial Park. In industrial parks, the manufacturers also can get the land cheaper if compared to other areas. Industrial parks are good ways to develop industries and make them grow faster.

Does the Silk Road Project include measures to protect the environment?

We have signed environmental protection agreements with several countries along the Belt and Road. With India, water resource protection, with Central Asia, forestry, with Middle East countries, desert protection, with Singapore, environmental protection MoUs. With ASEAN countries we have cooperation actions on environment between China and ASEAN (2014-2015). We have signed a lot of environmental protection agreements. I have just mentioned some. All the relevant governments have the willingness to implement all the environmental agreements. After the signing, China will, of course, abide by the agreements. There would be lawful
reinforcements from China.

What countries will be involved in the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road?

The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road includes several coastal provinces in China and then from South China Sea, it will come to the ASEAN countries, most of the ASEAN countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar. Then to Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, then to Pakistan then to Middle East, then to Africa. In the 17th century, a China fleet travelled along this road. Through this Maritime Silk Road, they made trade exchanges, culture exchanges, sent our silk, our porcelain, tea. They also brought back or exchanged African cultures, their products, Sri Lanka products, Indian products back to China. There were exchanges among these countries.

Will China be ready to accept more cultural penetration from Europe and Africa?

Every country has its own culture. And the culture is the treasure of a country. Culture is also open. We don’t need to reject other cultures. Culture is also needed to be mixed to cultivate understanding. There are a lot of exchanges in cultures. We send our cultures to other countries. Other countries also send their cultures to China. Through these mixings of cultures among the human beings, we understand each other and we go forward together.

How does the United States regard the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road?

All the main countries in the world support the Belt and the Road. USA has made one expression. Assistant Secretary of State on the South Asia Affairs made a speech that USA, two or three years ago, they have a strategy for the new Silk Road. They said the new Silk Road is not a competition. They welcome China’s constructive efforts. They said the Silk Belt and Road is mutually compensating each other with the America strategy for the new Silk Road. We also mentioned that we noticed the relation between these two initiatives is mutually compensating each other, not competing each other.

The news release says the world economy is flat and global development is uneven. Is China confident that the new Belt and Road will contribute to strengthening the world economy?

Of course, it would. Through this Silk Belt and Road project, many countries will develop themselves. These countries mostly are developing countries now. After the Road is built, these developing countries will become more developed, and they will make a big contribution to the world economy.

Is China interested in building more high-speed railway links linking it with Myanmar? For example Nay Pyi Taw to Beijing, Yangon to Beijing and Mandalay to Beijing?

This would depend on the Myanmar side. If they wish, then we can discuss to go further more. The high-speed railroad shouldn’t be separated. If there were be a railroad, it should connect these three cities and Beijing because they are the most important cities in Myanmar. The three cities should be connected to Beijing together.

Would this also be under the Silk Road project?

All the development projects between China and Myanmar could be included under this Belt and Road development project.


This Article first appeared in the April 30, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.

Mizzima Weekly is available in print in Yangon through Innwa Bookstore and through online subscription at www.mzineplus.com 

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