Asian leaders have gathered in China for a four-day summit aiming to set the economic agenda during what is sure to be a crucial year for Burma.
The Boao Forum for Asia comes as ASEAN states prepare for the establishment of an integrated economic community.
Led by Chinese President Xi Jingping, nations are set to reaffirm their support for sprawling infrastructure projects due to connect the continent.
A network of sea, rail and road projects make up China’s dream of a new “Silk Road”. The global initiative may cost US$800 million per annum for the next five years. But China says its Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) is ready to foot the bill.
China’s Finance Minister Lou Jiwei said that the newly established bank would work to support the entire region.
“The AIIB focuses on construction of infrastructure in the region, so it will certainly work in the investment scope of its members and the ‘One Belt, One Road’ project,” said Lou.
Southeast Asia enjoys a strong strategic position, providing key ports and stopovers on China’s western trade routes.
A prominent academic at the Thai National Institute of Development Administration believes Chinese connections with Europe will continue to be of huge benefit to the region.
“I think the railway lines will connect Thailand and ASEAN with China and even Europe to achieve resources sharing and a win-win result, turning Thailand’s geographical advantages into reality,” said Ass-Prof Karun.
Burma has already proved to be a major beneficiary, as Asian powerhouses pour funds into continental connections.
Railways lines linking Burma, India and China are already underway, as is as a separate fast-track connecting Burma, officially known as Myanmar, with China.
An 800-km gas and oil pipeline corridor running from Burma’s western Arakan coast to China’s southern Yunnan Province is a crucial element of China’s new trade network.However the pipeline poses serious environmental and social concerns.
Spanning two states and two divisions, some of which are among Burma’s poorest and least developed, the pipes are routed through areas where armed conflict between the Burmese armed forces and several ethnic militias has broken out over the past three and a half years.
Nevertheless, natural gas has started flowing to energy-hungry China through the pipeline from the Bay of Bengal, across Burma and into Yunnan Province, skirting politically unstable sea routes including the South China Sea.
Those corridors do however make up a crucial element of China’s proposed “Maritime Silk Road” and Indonesia is spending to ensure it gains significantly from China’s focus.
President Joko Widodo is at the talks at Boao, in China’s southern Hainan Province.
“In the maritime sector, Indonesia will put more effort into building infrastructure, such as harbours, ships and fishery plants,” the Indonesian leader said.
Burmese President Thein Sein gave a keynote speech at Boao in 2013. Yet at a time of heightened tensions on the Sino-Burmese border, no Naypyidaw ministers are among the list of official guests for this year’s event.