In mid-January, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a historic visit to Myanmar with a pocket full of promises.
Xi vowed to build and finance big new infrastructure projects to connect the two neighbors in unprecedented trade-promoting ways in a so-called China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, which if realized as envisioned would serve as a poster child for his wider Belt and Road Initiative in Southeast Asia.
Fast forward three weeks to the coronavirus outbreak, which has killed at least 25 and infected over 24,000 in China, has spread contagion panic worldwide – and has suddenly put those grand Myanmar plans into certain doubt, as Beijing looks inward to contain the epidemic and Naypyidaw weighs new downsides of greater bilateral connectivity.
Like other nations Myanmar has suspended visas on arrival for Chinese tourists, while the national hotels and tourism ministry has asked travel agencies to stop providing services to all Chinese nationals.
Those measures could deal a hard blow to Myanmar’s nascent but crucial tourism industry. Chinese nationals accounted for over 17% of Myanmar’s documented 4.36 million visitors in 2019, a figure that is sure to fall drastically with the new visa ban.
At the usually busy border crossing between Ruili in China’s southern Yunnan process and Muse in Myanmar’s Shan state — a key passage point in the CMEC — trade is sluggish with trucks lining up idly on both sides due to new restrictions on cross-border trade.
Normally, the trucks would be carrying everything from vegetables and forestry products to precious stones and consumer goods across the border.
The new restrictions on cross-border movements are not confined to government-controlled areas.
For a large geographical area in the country’s northeast, the United Wa State Army, a powerful tribal outfit which effectively runs its own buffer state between Myanmar and China, has taken similar measures to bar Chinese travelers.
According to the daily Myanmar Times newspaper, Wa authorities have ordered casinos and nightclubs in their territory, which normally attract busloads of Chinese visitors, to close and suspend their operations indefinitely.
On February 2, a chartered flight evacuated 59 of 63 Myanmar students stranded in Wuhan, the epicenter of the epidemic, to the central Myanmar city of Mandalay. They will be kept under surveillance in a local hospital for two weeks, similar to protective measures imposed in other countries that have evacuated their nationals.
But as The Irrawaddy news-site reported on February 1, Myanmar laboratories are unable to diagnose the coronavirus and the country’s National Health Laboratory has sent swab samples from suspected patients for testing to more advanced facilities in neighboring Thailand.
Myanmar is no stranger to shutting itself off from the rest of the world, though in the past it has done so for political not health reasons.
Apart from having inadequate health services, a symptom of decades of poor governance under military rule, Myanmar has another legacy problem from previous atavistic regimes: the fact that its long, porous borders are largely unguarded due to civil war and an acute lack of security resources.
The total length of Myanmar’s borders with its different neighbors is 6,158 kilometers, of which the Myanmar-China boundary accounts for more than 2,204 kilometers, Thailand-Myanmar 2,107 kilometers and India-Myanmar 1,338 kilometers. There is also a 238-kilometer river border — the Mekong — with Laos and a 271-kilometer river and land boundary with Bangladesh.
Most of the terrain along those borders is rugged and mountainous. Roads are few and there is only a limited number of official border crossing points between Myanmar and its neighbors including China.
Ethnic and political insurgents have for decades exploited those open borders to smuggle weapons, trade in contraband and take cross-border sanctuary. In more recent years, however, illegal migration primarily from China has become a big, new problem for central authorities.
An influx of Chinese migrants, many of whom have genuine Myanmar identification cards purchased via middlemen from corrupt local officials, has changed the demographics of many areas, especially the city of Mandalay.
According to local, unofficial estimates, some 60% of the city’s economy, including retail stores and key industries, are now controlled by Chinese nationals.
It is too early to say what long-term impact China’s evolving coronavirus epidemic will have on neighboring Myanmar and more broadly on China-Myanmar relations.
Fewer Chinese tourists will be welcomed by some Myanmar citizens, as complaints rise about what is perceived as rude behavior in local markets and other public places.
Chinese travelers have come under abuse on social media platforms for acting disrespectfully, including by taking provocative selfies with Buddhist monks while on their daily alms rounds in cities like Mandalay.
The virus crisis could also prompt Myanmar authorities to reconsider wider bilateral relations with China, which, in the eyes of many, have given priority to profit over people through controversial projects like the US$3.6 billion hydroelectric power plant dam project China aims to build at Myitsone in the country’s far north.
Concerns have also been raised about China’s involvement in the construction of other massive hydroelectric power dams, a costly deep-sea port project at Kyaukphyu on the Bay of Bengal and the construction of a new megacity opposite the old capital Yangon.
To be sure, the coronavirus epidemic will not be fatal to the Belt and Road, corridor and other big ticket Chinese investment schemes in Myanmar.
But the disease’s fast and lethal spread will inevitably cause authorities in Naypyidaw to rethink the risks attached to ever more integration and economic dependence on its giant northern neighbor.