THE GREAT GAME: A PRIMER ON MYANMAR (BURMA)
By John Ford
This is the seventh in a series of guest posts by John Ford. John is a graduate of Chapman University School of Law and is a reserve officer in the US Army. He will be writing short profiles of 8 countries that are of great importance to US foreign policy but receive little attention in the media: Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, The Congo, Nigeria, Mali, Myanmar, and Singapore. The purpose is to give readers a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities these countries present and how they relate to American global strategy. You can follow John on Twitter at @johndouglasford.
China and India are the two behemoths of Asia. They are rising powers who have for millennia vacillated between predominance and hegemony in their respective neighborhoods. But these two giants have historically had only limited contact with each other. Economic, political, and cultural exchange did occur but was never as extensive as one might assume given their proximity to each other. The reason is geography.
The border between India and China is blocked off by the Himalayas, the world’s highest mountain range. This has obviously made interaction difficult. But to the east of the Himalayas sits another geographic obstacle nearly as daunting as the mountains: The dense jungles of Burma.
Burma’s jungles have done nearly as much as the peaks of the Himalayas to separate Asia’s giants. But in recent years this situation has begun to change as the Burmese jungles are slowly tamed and China and India are drawn closer together than ever before. A great change has come to Burma in the last 20 years. The rainforest is being cut through by highways and rail lines and a direct route between China and India that bypasses the Himalayas is being created, inaugurating Asia’s new Great Game.
The common perception is that India and China are competing for influence in Burma. This is a bit misleading. It is true that China and India have both tried to gain a diplomatic and economic foothold in Burma but only one is succeeding. The plain reality is that China is leaving India in the dust in the new Great Game. India’s problem is that its domestic politics are simultaneously chaotic and sclerotic.
India is deeply divided by religion, language and ethnicity. Former Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kwan Yew once said, “India is not a real country. Instead it is thirty-two separate nations that happen to be arrayed along the British rail line.” Its government is a bureaucratic mess and its Byzantine licensing system strangles entrepreneurship. The influence of the caste system is receding but in poor and rural areas it continues to limit the ability of individuals to contribute up to their potential. India’s internal divisions make it difficult to build a strong foreign policy because political energy has to be focused on holding the country together.
China on the other hand is an ethnically homogenous country (91% of Chinese are Han Chinese) whose government, despite its many obvious flaws, has no trouble decisively pursuing a coherent foreign policy. China’s leaders have identified continued economic growth as essential to the survival of the Communist Party and want to ensure that the interior of the country finally begins to share in the economic growth that the coast has experienced over the last 30 years, lest economic differences between regions lead to social unrest. China has also identified access to raw materials, especially energy supplies from the Persian Gulf, as the key to sustaining their economic growth. And China knows that Burma is critical to securing energy supplies and to growing the economy in the interior of China because it can help them solve what they call the “Malacca Dilemma”.
The Strait of Malacca, located between Malaysia and Indonesia to Burma’s south, is the world’s most important shipping lane. This path between Malaysia and Indonesia is only 11 miles wide at its key chokepoint and it is through this narrow strait that three quarters of China’s oil supply must pass on its way to China. China is well aware of how vulnerable it is to having this critical choke point closed off in the event of a conflict with another major power. China’s dependency on this one sea lane is its “Malacca Dilemma”. For this reason China seeks an alternative route for energy supplies from the Persian Gulf that can bypass this narrow route. This is where Burma comes in.
If China dominates Burma, it can bring its oil out of the Persian Gulf directly into Burmese ports and then into China by overland pipelines directly into southwest China. This will free China from dependence on the Malacca Strait in the event of a conflict with another naval power that could cut China off from energy resources in the event of a conflict. China has had an advantage in pursuing this strategy in that for most of the last 25 years China has had the field of play in Burma all to itself. The western nations and India have traditionally refused to deal with Burma’s ruling military junta.
The reluctance of the free world to engage Burma is understandable. Burma has been run for decades by a violent military dictatorship that jailed Nobel Peace Laureate and democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi for having the temerity to win a free and fair election. The regime is so paranoid that it refused to accept humanitarian aid in the wake of a devastating typhoon because it believed the west would use the delivery of aid as a cover to overthrow the regime militarily. A year before it decided that western charity was a ruse to invade Rangoon, it killed hundreds of Buddhist monks who were protesting the junta’s decision to cut fuel subsidies to Burmese peasants. A friend who visited Burma a few years ago told me that people would not talk about politics in cities for fear someone would overhear them but they would speak if they were out in a field away from possible witnesses. When they finally spoke about politics they would ask their western visitor why no one was doing anything about their plight.
Nearly all western countries did impose economic sanctions on Burma’s junta. These sanctions weakened the regime not at all. The price was mostly paid by ordinary people who were denied access to western markets. Thanks to the west’s boycott and India’s disorganization, China has built up a huge head start in the race for influence in Burma.
Over the last few years, things have begun to change. The change began in the minds of Burma’s leaders. Burma’s population of 60 million is roughly equal to that of France or the United Kingdom. This makes Burma a very large country by global standards but it is still dwarfed by its larger neighbors, India and China. Burma will always feel somewhat threatened by the sheer size of its neighbors.
This fear is increased by exactly how much China is investing in Burma. At first, Chinese investment was a welcome source of cash for a government that was internationally isolated. But as time has gone by Chinese investment has taken on a more threatening character. For example, Mandalay is now effectively a Chinese city. While ethnic Burmese still make up a slight majority of the city’s population, Mandalay’s city center is now majority Chinese. The largest investors are Chinese. The largest businesses are Chinese owned. Chinese now dominate the city’s economic life. Burma’s leadership fears that the pattern that has made ethnic Chinese the dominant force in Mandalay will repeat itself in other places as Burma becomes a subsidiary of China rather than a truly independent country.
Burma has been dependent on China and terrified of China at the same time. Burma’s fear of China sent it looking for other partners who could balance China at the same time India became fearful of growing Chinese influence in Burma right on their doorstep. India began what is called its “Look East” policy, where New Delhi began trying to increase its economic and diplomatic influence in the countries of Southeast Asia. Though India has more at stake in Burma than in any other Southeast Asian country it was not until the early 2000s that India began courting Burma in earnest. India has let China get a long head start in Burma and is now moving in its typically ponderous fashion but at least it is moving.
Then in 2011, the Burmese junta found itself growing closer to a surprising potential partner: The United States. It wasn’t just Burma and India that was noticing China’s growing influence in Southeast Asia. The US also wanted to check China in the region and the American initiative to engage Burma and begin lifting sanctions was a key part of the recent “pivot” to Asia. As part of the American engagement effort, the US lifted sanctions as did the European Union. In exchange, Burma’s government agreed to allow a much larger role for opposition political parties including Aung San Suu Kyi who has been released from her 15 years of house arrest.
Burma allows us to look at strategic questions relating to the rise of China. Burma has been a Chinese client state for many years. American strategists have tended to worry that as China rises the nations of Asia will be pulled into its orbit. Burma was as close to Beijing as any Asian country but as China rises they are not looking to capitalize on China’s rise – they are looking to hedge against it.
The US response has been an uncharacteristic bit of realpolitik. Despite the repressive nature of Burma’s regime the US took a chance on engagement with Burma so as to help counter the rise of China. In return the US not only helped undermine Chinese predominance in Burma but also advanced the cause of human rights that confrontation and sanctions had done so little to promote. It was able to do this because a Chinese ally responded to China’s rising power in a surprising way that may give some insight into how other Asian countries will respond to Chinese growth.
For further reading:
“Where China Meets India” by Thant Myint-U
“Monsoon” by Robert Kaplan