“Asia’s New Great Game”

Thant Myint-U has an article in FP about Burma, traditionally China’s second worst ally. It’s now being viewed as a possible bridge between India and China, which may completely change the country:

Beginning in the mid-1990s, China began unveiling plans to join its interior to the shores of the Indian Ocean. By the mid-2000s, these plans were being turned into reality. New highways are starting to slice through the highlands of Burma, linking the Chinese hinterland directly to both India and the warm waters of the Bay of Bengal. One highway will lead to a brand-new, multi-billion-dollar port, facilitating the export of manufactured goods from China’s western provinces while bringing in Persian Gulf and African oil, oil that will be transported along a new 1,000-mile-long pipeline to refineries in China’s hitherto landlocked Yunnan province. Another, parallel pipeline will carry Burma’s newfound offshore natural gas to light up the fast-growing cities of Kunming and Chongqing. And more than $20 billion will be invested in a high-speed rail line. Soon, journeys that once took months to make may soon be completed in less than a day. By 2016, Chinese planners have declared, it will be possible to travel by train all the way from Rangoon to Beijing, part of a grand route they say will one day extend to Delhi and from there to Europe.

Burma could become China’s California. Chinese authorities have long been vexed by the soaring gap in income between its prosperous eastern cities and provinces and the many poor and backward areas to the west. What China is lacking is another coast to provide its remote interior with an outlet to the sea and to its growing markets around the world. Chinese academics have written about a “Two Oceans” policy. The first is the Pacific. The second would be the Indian Ocean. In this vision, Burma becomes a new bridge to the Bay of Bengal and the seas beyond.

China’s leadership has also written about its “Malacca dilemma.” China is heavily dependent on foreign oil, and approximately 80 percent of these oil imports currently pass through the Strait of Malacca, near Singapore, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and just 1.7 miles across at its narrowest point. For Chinese strategists, the strait is a natural choke point where future enemies could cut off foreign energy supplies. An alternative route needed to be found. Again, access across Burma would be advantageous, lessening dependence on the strait and at the same time dramatically reducing the distance from China’s factories to markets in Europe and around the Indian Ocean. That Burma itself is rich in the raw materials needed to power industrial development in China’s southwest is an added plus.

Meanwhile, India has its own ambitions. With the “Look East” policy, successive Indian governments since the 1990s have sought to revive and strengthen age-old ties to the Far East, across the sea and overland across Burma, creating new connections over once impassable mountains and jungle barriers. Just north of where China is building its pipeline, along the Burmese coast, India is starting work to revive another seaport with a special road and waterway to link to Assam and India’s other isolated and conflict-ridden northeastern states. There is even a proposal to reopen the Stilwell Road, built by the Allies at epic cost during World War II and then abandoned, a road that would tie the easternmost reaches of India with China’s Yunnan province. Indian government officials speak of Burma’s importance for the security and future development of their country’s northeast — while also keeping a cautious eye on China’s dynamic push into and across Burma.

But is a modern-day Silk Road really in the making? Until earlier this year, it was difficult to be optimistic, with Burma at the heart of the transformations and the news from Burma remaining so bad. Ordinary people were as poor as ever, political repression was the order of the day, and the Chinese projects under way seemed to be doing more to fuel corruption and devastate the environment than anything else. Fresh elections were held late last year, but they were widely condemned as fraudulent.

Over the past several months, however, there have been increasing signs that better days might lie ahead.

This March, the junta was formally dissolved and power handed over to a quasi-civilian government headed by a retired general, U Thein Sein. President Thein Sein quickly began to exceed (admittedly low) expectations, speaking out against graft, stressing the need for political reconciliation, appointing technocrats and businessmen to key positions, inviting exiles to return home, announcing fresh peace talks with rebel groups, and even reaching out to Aung San Suu Kyi, not long before released from house arrest. Poverty reduction strategies have been formulated, taxes lowered, trade liberalized, and a slew of new laws on everything from banking reform to environmental regulation prepared for legislative approval. Parliament, after a shaky start, began to take on a life of its own. Media censorship has been significantly relaxed, and opposition parties and Burma’s burgeoning NGO community have been allowed a degree of freedom not seen in half a century.

It’s a fragile opening. The president seems determined to push ahead, but his is not the only voice. There are other powerful ex-generals in parliament and in the cabinet, and the structures of repression remain intact. Burma is at a critical turning point.

How India and China develop, and their relationship with each other, is going to be hugely important this century. It’s almost funny that a relatively small and sparsely populated country in between them might end up playing such a huge roll in how it all turns out.

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