Japan eyes increased Myanmar role

Japanese investment is set to revolutionise Yangon’s creaking railway network. Source: Asean Economist

Japan is trying to reinforce its influence in Myanmar in an attempt to counterbalance the all-conquering Chinese.

In the last five years, the number of Japanese firms in Myanmar has grown six-fold, language courses have spread and billions has been sent from Tokyo into industrial and social schemes.

Tokyo is pushing to secure emerging markets and reduce dependence on China by building closer ties in Asean.

In May 2015, Hitachi won the tender from the state-owned rail company to install a signal system around Yangon.

“On top of the electrification of the rail system, we will present proposals to the government, including a comprehensive plan to develop the transportation infrastructure,” Hitachi chairman Hiroaki Nakanishi said.

The tech giant was also looking to build Myanmar a map database, Nakanishi announced. Currently maps created by the authorities were imperfect and they also differed across government departments, which impeded effective action, he said.

Hitachi is also asking Nay Pyi Taw about creating a database using a global positioning system and other technology. “It will provide a launching pad for resource exploration, disaster prevention, flood control and other related operations across a wide spectrum,” said the chairman.

Myanmar started taking stuttering steps towards reform after 2011 but the US and some other western countries remain cautious about becoming too involved because of sanctions, corruption and ongoing repression.

But Nay Pyi Taw wanted to reduce its dependence on Beijing, most notably by suspending the giant Chinese-backed Myitsone dam project in 2011 that threatened to bring environmental disaster to Myanmar and electricity to China.

Japan had always kept business and cultural connections with Myanmar, never imposing sanctions.

Corporate finance from firms like Mitsubishi, Marubeni and Sumitomo has bankrolled the Thilawa industrial zone southeast of Yangon.

Hitachi has a long history in Myanmar, including orders for power-generating equipment in 1958 for one of the country’s biggest hydroelectric plants.

Official Japanese development aid has gone into plans ranging from an overhaul of Yangon’s British colonial-era sewerage network to the construction of three meteorological radar installations.

Official loans from Tokyo almost doubled to US$14.7 billion in 2014 in a year, the latest figures available, while debt relief reached US$44 billion in 2013 alone. Membership of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce in the country was 53 at the end of complete military rule but is now around 310.

Some Myanmar state enterprises have joint ventures with Japanese firms, including brewer Kirin and telecoms business KDDI.