There has been much commentary surrounding the development, conception, and now the roll out of the New Silk Road (One Belt One Road) by China. Much of this commentary has focused on whether it will happen and the commercial viability of such an audacious plan. In my view, it is already happening and what commentaries miss is that the scope of the New Silk Road extends beyond simply building infrastructure. It is a logistics and transportation network that focuses on those regions promising high economic growth with strategic resources, such as iron, concrete gas that also links manufacturing with key markets. Furthermore , it does not only connect East and West but joins Asia with SE Asia – a market that has 600 million people and is nine times the scale of central Asia. Myanmar has a pivotal role to play in this new strategic footprint and has the potential to become the West Coast of China that bypasses the risks associated with trade through the Malacca Straits. Before going on to the reasons why Myanmar will play a key strategic role, we must first get an understanding of what the New Silk Road is.
A Bit of History – Malacca Straits, a natural competitive advantage or man made?
The first version of the “Silk Road” was based on developing inland routes, connecting the west with the east. The transportation network, that passed through the likes of India and Indochina, enabled China to become a leader in international trade as it was at both the beginning and end point of key transport nodes. These nodes were efficient and linked key trade markets in Asia and Europe. This was also assisted by the poor conditions in hazardous maritime transportation sector of the time. As shipping conditions improved and navigation more trustworthy, the Straits of Malacca became more navigable. Trade routes shifted from the inland regions to the south-east coastal parts of the region, with Singapore taking advantage of this shift.
Singapore has played an important role in assisting shipping and oil & gas exploration expansion in the ASEAN region. Shipping routes, as well as its location to regional oil fields, has enabled Singapore to become an important hub in terms of finance, logistics, and marine transportation to support this sector. Being a small country, and being able to leverage its key strategic location, particularly with regards to the Malacca Straits, it could capitalize on available funds for infrastructure development. This has given Singapore a competitive advantage over the likes of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand who did not have access to such funds. But this is all about to change. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Fund and China’s $63bn commitment to the building of the new Silk Road (One Belt, One Road Strategy) will level the playing field in terms of key infrastructure and at the same time question the once strategic importance claimed by the Malacca Straits. This, in turn, will also bring about a change in how and from where the offshore oil & gas sector will receive support services as well as change how they will manage their supply chains.
It would appear that using the Malacca Straits was not always a first option for trading countries and was regarded as a less efficient transport corridor. The debate has gone on for over 400 years, with the first thoughts of bypassing the straits with a canal system, similar to what we have in the Suez Canal, through Southern Thailand being spoken of in 1677. King Narai was the first to explore the possibility of building a waterway connecting Sungkhla and Myanmar, which would join the Gulf Of Thailand with the Andaman Sea. This was to be known as the Kra Canal or Kra Isthmus Canal, but referred to as the Thai Canal in the One Belt, One Road strategy discussions. Cost and expertise were reasons why this development was put aside historically. The idea was revisited in 1793 by King Chakru and essentially renounced for the same reasons given earlier. The issue of the Malacca Straits came to a head in 1897, and agreement was reached between the Thai and British governments not to proceed with the Thai Canal but to protect the regional dominance of the Port of Singapore. It can be argued, that the use of the Malacca Straits was based on political expediency and not for optimal efficiency.
With 15 to 16 million barrels per annum passing through the Malacca Straits and the cost of using the Straits being put at approximately US$0.10 per barrel, alongside other issues raised earlier, there is now a renewed look at resurrecting the Thai Canal, to supplement and enhance the progress that has been made on delivering the One Belt, One Road strategy.
There have been reports that an MOU has been signed on the 15 May 2015, between China and the Thailand Infrastructure Investment Development Company in Guangzhou. The MOU covers a feasibility study and projects that the cost of the canal would be in the region of US$20 billion and take 10 years to construct. Although there has been a denial by both the Chinese and Thai governments, there are a number of indicators that the project is progressing. These include the following:
The “People’s Daily” reported on May 20th that a senior official has
stated that the Thai Canal is considered an important part of the One
Belt, One Road Strategy
Chinese Oil Companies have already activated the key oil & gas
pipeline connecting Myanmar with China in Yunnan province
Precedent has now been set with the commencement of the Nicaragua
Canal funded by Chinese private enterprise but also part of the One
Belt, One Road strategy (this canal is more expensive and longer and
connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans)
The canal will connect key ports, special economic zones, and roads between Thailand and Myanmar that are in the process of being developed.
The first Silk Road based on inland routes and to the north enabled China to be the leader in international trade as it carved out key transport nodes. These transport nodes were efficient and linked the key trade markets between the east and Europe. This was partly assisted by the poor conditions in maritime transportation, not just in vessel design but in infrastructure support. This all changed with improvements in the maritime sector and trade routes shifted to the southeast coastal region of the country as shipping grew in stature– with Singapore taking advantage of this shift.
China responded to this shift in shipping and maritime paradigms, clearly demonstrated by their recent achievements in shipping, all of which has set China to re-emerge as the world’s leading trade nation. Some of these achievements include the following:
Shanghai and Hong Kong are world leading cargo hubs.
Of the top 10 container ports, 7 are along the Chinese coast.
China shipyards are more competitive and now lead the likes of
Why would China want to go back to inland routes?
With all this progress having taken place, the obvious question is why would China want to re-instate the inland route? I would contend that the answers provided to this question highlight the challenge that will soon confront the likes of Singapore and why countries such as Myanmar can replace Singapore’s current status as being China’s West coast. The reasons for the change include:
With China losing its low cost advantage in terms of manufacturing,
it needs to structurally align its manufacturing to be closer to low
cost producers such as Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and
Vietnam. Not only do these countries offer a source of low cost
labour, it also helps realign the economic disparity created by the
maritime road impact on China’s growth over the last decade, during which we have seen population shifts in the region move from rural to urban that has created an economic disparity.
It returns capital and employment to the impoverished western region
and enables the reducing of social tensions that have emerged during
the China growth phase.
Strategically wants to replace maritime trade with inland trade as it
will reduce its perceived threat of USA control over sea routes via
their allies in Singapore, Japan, and Korea. Consider this in the
light of the ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Arguably the Silk Road or inland route strengthens China’s maritime position as it enhances trade capability to Europe.
Reduces the dependency on maritime or sea trade and energy imports.
It eliminates the security risks, particularly with regard to oil & gas supply, associated with increased piracy and dangers in using the Malacca Straits.
Drivers in the region that are specific to oil & gas that shape the thinking
Approximately 17% of the global daily oil production is transported via the Straits of Malacca. This delivers oil from the Middle East to the likes of China, Japan, and South Korea. Issues that are becoming problematic with this trade route include:
Increasing piracy in the Malacca Straits, hence the push for an adjustment to the Maritime Silk Route to that of the “String of Pearls “route shown in the map above,
Longer steam times between ports,
Port and channel congestion – particularly in Singapore.
Significant oil & gas exploration activities in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, particularly in the countries of Myanmar and India that would address Chinese future energy security needs. The Silk Road brings all of these markets closer.
The Importance of the Thai Canal and Myanmar’s role
The canal is central to the String of Pearl route and places Myanmar at the center of oil & gas trade and shipping. Issues that are key considerations for China looking to bypassing the Malacca Straits include:
The Malacca Strait has a significant chokepoint at the Phillip
Channel with the canal narrowing down to a width of 2.8km and runs
for a length of just over 2km. When one considers that 200 vessels
per day / 60,000 vessels per year pass through the channel, this risk
profile presents problems when taking account of potential for
collisions, delays and piracy.
With 25% of world oil trade passing through Malacca, the Thai/Myanmar
solution strategically presents an alternative route that reduces the
risks associated with the Phillip channel chokepoint.
Currently 70% of China’s energy (Oil and Gas) imports pass through
Malacca, placing their energy security at risk. Myanmar’s role thus
reduces the dependency on maritime / sea trade and energy imports via
Why is Myanmar an important player
New road, rail, and air Infrastructure provides the central city of
Kunming better access, particularly ocean access, to the likes of
Myanmar, India, and Europe. It appears that Kunming is already
replacing Singapore as SE Asia transport hub with Singapore becoming
a feeder into the hub as will be China, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam.
From a Chinese and Kunming perspective, the better access to Dawei
and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar draws a major trading partner close, India.
Deep water port facilities and oil & gas pipeline at Kyaukpyu in
Myanmar, connecting Yunnan Province, and has already seen the start
of shipping direct from China to Kyaukpyu via the Malacca Straits.
This has significantly reduced steam time as they can now bypass
Singapore, but does not address the security and other issues
associated with the Straits.
China has already invested heavily in oil and gas pipelines that run
through Myanmar, as an alternative energy route. The Kyaukphyu /
Yunnan Province pipeline is indicative of how China is using
infrastructure development within Myanmar to promote energy security.
Dawei port development with related improved infrastructure linking
it with Bangkok, again improving shipping and transport times.
The opening of the Chongqing rail route, the cheapest of 5 railway
routes from China to Europe, with this mode of transport being twice
as fast as shipping and is a more effective method of moving hi- tech
and automotive parts.
Myanmar is strategically located between two economic giants – China
and India, and offers access to a 2.3 billion consumer base across
all its neighbouring countries. Additionally, in the domestic market,
opportunities abound for investors in the booming automotive,
construction, and electronic sectors, with demand being largely met
through imports currently. Large multinational companies (MNCs) such
as Lafarge and Ball Corporation have invested in the country’s
manufacturing sector mainly to cater to local demand.
With a population of over 50 million and a healthy GDP growth rate of
05 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), there are significant untapped opportunities in the domestic market,
which is gradually transitioning away from being a primarily
agriculture based economy. The industrial sector’s share of GDP in
Myanmar increased from 11 percent in 2008 to 21 percent in 2014.
Low labour wages and favourable tax exemptions allow firms to lower
their operating costs, reinforcing their competitiveness, especially
in the regional market. To highlight the significant benefits, if not
all, under the Foreign Investment Law, investors can claim a
corporate tax exemption of five years and a custom duty exemption on
imported raw material for the first three years of commercial
Under the Special Economic Zones (SEZ) Law, five to seven years of
corporate tax exemption is granted depending on the business type and
custom duty exemption is granted for imported raw materials and
machinery for the first five years of commercial operation. Timing
remains critical and investors are certainly rushing in with the
total manufacturing FDI in 2014-15 amounting to $1.5 billion, a third
of which comes from investment in Thilawa SEZ.
Challenges for Myanmar to take advantage of these developments
Infrastructure continues to be a major challenge in the facilitation
of upgrades and improvements in the manufacturing sector. Although
infrastructure development projects are underway, approximately 70
percent of the roads are still unpaved. Though sea trade handles more
than 80 percent of the overall trade, the ports are not able to cater
to big vessels above 20,000 DWT, requiring manufacturing firms to
maintain high inventory. Being a part of the Silk Road and associated
infrastructure development will reduce the challenge and improved
transportation routes will reduce reliance on holding
large inventory costs.
Myanmar is also in dire need of electrical power, which is essential
for commercial and industrial development. Currently, almost all
manufacturing companies are using back-up power generators due to the
unsteady and low-voltage supply of electricity. There are a number of
initiatives currently underway to improve supply and the national
power grid, with recent announcements by MOEP that significant
projects have been agreed, for example a 230 MW solar farm with 11
micro grids to support Chin and Shan States. These developments are
aided by funds such as a $400-million financial aid package from the
At this moment there is uncertainty around the “One Road, One Belt”
initiative, as no one Country fully understands the purpose of this
initiative. Furthermore the initiative is going to require a high
level of integration of processes and systems by those countries
involved. Cabotage laws / regulations will be key to the success of
the maritime leg, and Myanmar can play a leading role in facilitating
an alignment of these laws, particularly between China/Thailand and
India. Once we have deeper integration along the Silk Road , the
cabotage laws will surely come into focus.
With ongoing reform in the Country, it is well placed to assist China
capture new markets, and with China’s history dating back to the
sixties, of being involved in Myanmar, places China at a distinct
advantage over Western countries. However, the complex conflict
within Myanmar, particularly between the center and the periphery ,
could well prove to be the real challenge. This is highlighted by the
center (mainly Burmese) having the seat of power and access to gas
and the periphery (mainly the ethnic states) having control over
jade, hydropower and timber resources. This sensitivity was
highlighted by the recent clashes with the Kokang rebels and the
The infrastructure deficits needed to support not only oil & gas
but manufacturing, evident in SE Asia, are being addressed by the
Asian Infrastructure Fund through the One Belt, One Road strategic
initiative. I would anticipate that the impact of this on the
regional oil & gas sector will result in:
Offshore support services will move from Singapore to Myanmar,
Thailand, and India as they will be in closer proximity to new oil
& gas fields, particularly in the area of Offshore Supply Base
Supply of parts will be more efficient as there will be an
integrated transportation service allowing faster and more efficient
supply of parts leading to lower inventory holding costs as new and
key markets are made more accessible,
Shipping time across the north will be greatly reduced as a result
of an integrated transport network, particularly oil supply from the
Middle East to China.
With this in mind, I would suggest that providers of field services to offshore operators would need to engage with the Region and start establishing a footprint in countries such as Myanmar, as the landscape in support services is changing. Whilst Singapore may still be the preferred hub at the present time, the dynamics and playing field is about to undergo fundamental change. These changes will assist the oil patch to reduce cost not only by improved supply chain and logistics but by allowing business to develop and commissioned in low cost countries.
In conclusion, the infrastructure deficit currently in Southeast Asia is being addressed by the Asian Infrastructure Fund. This initiative promotes capital and technology investment into the necessary ports and transport routes that will better facilitate trade in the region. Furthermore, the strategic interests of China in terms of securing its energy future , including the new Silk Road and bringing much needed development in rural areas, would see Myanmar as a central and key player. Other beneficiaries of the Silk Road will be the likes of Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. Myanmar, with its strategic link between China and India, and it’s key location with regards offering a solution to the current chokepoint that is the Malacca Straits, is set to be the biggest beneficiary to this development.