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Myanmar Looks to Shenzhen as Model for New BRI-Backed City Project

State visit to Myanmar by Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, reboots plans for major mainland-funded development.

Photo: New Yangon City: Recreating the success of Shenzhen and Shanghai in the former Burmese capital.
New Yangon City: Recreating the success of Shenzhen and Shanghai in the former Burmese capital.
Photo: New Yangon City: Recreating the success of Shenzhen and Shanghai in the former Burmese capital.
New Yangon City: Recreating the success of Shenzhen and Shanghai in the former Burmese capital.

Chief among the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) agreements signed during the state visit of Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, to Myanmar in January was a commitment to progress the ambitious New Yangon City (NYC) project. One of three major BRI initiatives being developed within the remit of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, the NYC ranks alongside the China-Myanmar Border Economic Co-operation Zone and the KyaukPhyu Special Economic Zone (set on the coast of the Bay of Bengal) in terms of economic significance for the two countries.

The NYC's lead developer is the New Yangon Development Company (NYDC), which is wholly owned by the Yangon Regional Government. Ultimately, it is hoped that the project will help position Yangon as one of Southeast Asia's key innovation hubs, with the establishment of an "urban industrial district" seen as one of its overriding priorities.

Essentially, the project draws on many of the lessons learnt in China in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the country initiated its own highly successful Special Economic Zone development programme. In particular, the managed evolution of Shenzhen and Shanghai's Pudong New Area have been cited by the management of the NYC as models it wants to emulate.

A masterplan set to be rolled out over the next 30 years, the project involves two key development phases, with the first budgeted to cost US$1.5 billion. Work on both phases will focus on a site to the west of Yangon, Myanmar's largest city and the national capital until 2005, when the seat of government was shifted to the purpose-built centrally located city of Naypyidaw. Despite this relocation, Yangon remains the country's principal economic and transportation hub, contributing some 26% of national GDP.

With its population of seven million – and further expansion all but a certainty – Yangon's infrastructure is already seriously under strain, while its public services are widely seen as underdeveloped. In a bid to help remedy this, the new city will be constructed on the opposite side of the Yangon River to its ailing counterpart and will look to service the greater Yangon area as the primary gateway for trade and foreign investment in Myanmar. It is also hoped that it will prove to be a catalyst for the country's overall economic transformation, while generating a substantial number of jobs. According to preliminary figures, it will create employment for 600,000 local workers by 2025, rising to 900,000 by 2050.

Although now seen as very much back on course, the project has had something of a bumpy ride since it was first formally adopted in 2014. After four years of political controversies, delays and revisions, a big step forward was taken in May 2018 when Daw Nilar Kyaw, Myanmar's Minister of Electricity, Industry, Transport and Communication, signed a framework agreement with the NYDC and the Hong Kong-listed China Communications Construction Company with regard to work on phase one of the project. Subsequently, a broader blueprint for the project was drafted by AECOM, the Los Angeles-headquartered engineering and infrastructure giant, and formally adopted in May 2019.

By 2050, it is estimated that NYC will extend across an area of about 88 sq km and be home to some 1.2 million people. Once both phases are completed, 31% of its total space will be allocated for residential use, 25% for industrial and about 9% for ancillary services. Of this, up to 14 sq km will be reserved for green spaces and parks, while a 627km cycle network will also feature as a means of facilitating environmentally friendly travel.

The initial phase of development will also include the construction of five villages, two bridges, 26km of arterial roads, 10 sq km of industrial estate, power plant installations, freshwater facilities and a number of wastewater treatment plants. Several times larger than phase one, the second phase will focus on the development of additional power utilities, natural gas distribution conduits, a new international airport, enhanced public transport infrastructure, additional bridges, a convention centre and a new port facility designed to work in tandem with Yangon's existing Thilawa deep-water resource.

Geoff de Freitas, Special Correspondent, Yangon

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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