Among Asian nations characterised chiefly by their economic and social progress, Burma has long been the laggard. Yet this may be about to change. The release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest last year, a new nominally civilian parliament and renewed investor interest in the country have at least given its people grounds to hope that better times lie around the corner. And as Thant Myint-U makes clear in Where China Meets India, one thing is not in doubt: Burma’s days as a neglected backwater are over.
Myint-U, a Harvard-educated historian and grandson of Burmese diplomat and UN secretary-general U Thant, points out that geographically Burma is the keystone in a new and potentially immensely profitable trade bridge. It is in Burma that China’s “Go West” and India’s “Look East” policies meet. Both countries have recognised its value: as a source of raw materials; for its potential access to the Bay of Bengal; and as the final link in a chain connecting their combined population of 2.5bn people.
The economic logic of the connection is so compelling that outsiders frequently overlook the difficulties. Yet as Myint-U acknowledges, Burma is beset by inefficient and corrupt government, devilled by some of the world’s longest running ethnic conflicts and imbued with xenophobia after centuries of encroachment by its neighbours.
To complicate matters, Burma shares its borders with relatively dysfunctional regions of India and China. India’s north-east, connected to the rest of the country by a strip of land only 21km wide in places, is home to more than 40 insurgent groups. It remains one of the poorest parts of India despite disproportionately high government spending. On the Chinese side, Yunnan is also poor and has a long history of resistance to central control, but here economic growth is starting to filter in from the east.
In the race for dominance in Burma, China has established an indisputable lead. The sanctions implemented by the west and – until recently – India have created a vacuum; Myint-U understands what motivated them, but after almost two decades of stagnation finds the intellectual justification wanting. “Western politicians have been happy to view Burma as a simple morality play and a useful issue on which to appear ‘tough’ on human rights. The actual consequences of a policy that has long failed to deliver results are not important,” he says.
Beijing has already signed deals to build oil and gas pipelines connecting the Burmese coast with Kunming, 2,380km to the north-east, and is building hydropower dams on Burma’s Irrawaddy and Salween rivers that will eventually generate 20 gigawatts of electricity – a similar output to China’s Three Gorges Dam – almost all of which will be used by Chinese consumers over the border.
It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that Delhi realised the strategic disadvantages of isolating Burma, and it has been struggling to catch up ever since. India is building a port in Sittwe that will eventually connect to its north-eastern states, but it lost out to China in its bid for the Shwe gas fields.
Myint-U is full of wonder at China’s development but also nervous about its influence. The pipelines running north to Kunming, which could be finished as early as 2013, will reduce China’s dependency on the route through the Malacca Strait, but will make it vulnerable to upheavals in Burma, giving it a vested interest in ensuring that whoever is in power in Naypyidaw does not stray too far from China’s interests.
Already there are tensions between Burma’s nationalist instincts and the tightening embrace of its neighbours. For Myint-U, much now depends on the west: if the country’s rehabilitation spurs more new investment, it may once again take its rightful place at the centre of Asian trade.
Tim Johnston is the FT’s Bangkok correspondent
Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, by Thant Myint-U, Faber, RRP£20, 384 pages