If a recent article in the Global Times, a semi-official Chinese publication, is anything to go by, China has not given up hope of restarting its hydroelectric power project at Myitsone in northern Myanmar.
Suspended by the Myanmar government in September 2011, the US$3.6 billion project would have flooded 600 square kilometers of forest land and 90% of the electricity was earmarked for export to China. At the time, then-President Thein Sein said that any implementation of the project would be “against the wishes of the people”. Thousands of people had demonstrated against the project, which they said would devastate northern Myanmar with little benefit for people in the country.
The June 14 article in the Global Times said that the “hydropower station is a commercial cooperation that China and Myanmar have agreed upon” and “its long suspension is likely to drive down investor confidence amid concerns over the uncertainty of Myanmar’s economic policy.”
The paper did acknowledge, though, that because of “a complicated public opinion surrounding the project” it’s unrealistic to expect breaking news about Myitsone any time soon. But “China will keep talking to Myanmar over the stalled dam and try to find a practical way to resume the project based on mutually beneficial cooperation.”
It is unclear why the Chinese are raising the issue now, and they are obviously aware of the fact the project is immensely unpopular among the Myanmar public at large. Any serious effort to have it resumed would inevitably lead to a resumption of anti-Chinese protests in Myanmar, which China can ill-afford given the decline of its influence in the country since 2011.
It is more likely that China is using the specter of Myitsone to push for concessions from the Myanmar government for a much more important project: the deep sea port at Kyaukphyu on the Bay of Bengal. That is not a very popular project either, but somewhat less so than Myitsone, which would have a disastrous impact on northern Myanmar’s ecosystems.