September 28, 2011

The Great Game in the East

C. Raja Mohan Posted online: Sat Sep 24 2011, 03:13 hrs

When the world finds time to think of Burma (officially called Myanmar), it’s all about tightening sanctions against the military rulers and the heroic struggle of Aung San Suu Kyi for restoration of democracy.

Although the military regime has held elections of sorts recently and has lifted some of the restrictions against Suu Kyi, the country remains one of the most sanctioned nations in the world.

China and India, in contrast, have vigorously expanded their interaction — political, economic and security — with Burma in the last two decades. In this fabulous book, Thant Myint-U tells us why, and what it could mean for Asia in the long term.

The farther the distance of a country and fewer the direct stakes in it, the purer the position of the Western countries on promoting democracy there. For Western nations and their human rights activists, sanctions are the only answer for producing political change in Burma.

A grandson of U Thant, a former

UN Secretary General, the author has been at the forefront of developing a counter-narrative. He has pointed to the futility of the current sanctions regime and the need for a more sophisticated approach involving a measure of engagement to promote internal reorientation in Burma.

Thant Myint-U, who grew up in the West, has deep empathy for his country of origin and is optimistic about its long-term prospects. His much acclaimed earlier book, The River of Lost Footsteps, a cultural and personal history of Burma, helped reframe the debate around it.

Thant now tells us how rising powers China and India are intensifying their bilateral engagement with Burma, providing a basis for long-term internal transformation, and restoring its traditional significance in Asian geopolitics.

Part travelogue and part history, Thant’s work explains the interests of China and India in Burma and examines the implications of their rivalry.

Burma shares long land frontiers with China and India. China’s south-west and India’s northeast, which abut northern Burma, are full of minorities many of whom are restive. Put simply, the national territorial consolidation of China and India in these distant frontiers requires strong security cooperation with Burma.

Burma has a large amount of natural resources, including oil and natural gas, that are vital for sustaining the economic growth of China and India. Beijing and Delhi are tripping over each other in gaining access to them.

Burma provides south-western China much needed outlet to the seas. The ports, rail lines and pipelines that Beijing is building in Burma also provide some insurance against its current vulnerability in the Straits of Malacca, through which much of its trade in the Indian Ocean and Europe passes through.

India, in turn, is deeply concerned about China’s growing economic penetration of Burma and the prospect of China acquiring a naval foothold in the Bay of Bengal. It sees Burma’s value in providing maritime access to its land-locked northeast and a land-bridge to Southeast Asia.

As Beijing turns its gaze south towards the Indian Ocean, and India looks east to the Pacific Ocean, their policies intersect in Burma. Whether this rivalry leads to conflict or not, it is bound to integrate the hitherto remote and closed borderlands of China’s south-west, Burma’s north and India’s northeast with the global economy.

Thant reminds us that southern Burma was once the hub of Asia until its military rulers decided to lock down the nation in the early 1960s. Irrespective of the current Western policies of isolating Burma, the Indian and Chinese engagement with the region is likely to let the nation retake its rightful position at the crossroads of Asia.

Thant’s book is a must-read for all Indians interested in the changing geopolitics of its eastern frontiers. While India’s security elite has recognized the strategic importance of Burma, it has fallen behind China in the intensity of its engagement.

Towards the end of the book, Thant recalls Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s letter to Jawaharlal Nehru in 1950 underlining the threats that a just reunited China might present India on its northern and eastern borders.

A much stronger and economically powerful China poses a much bigger geopolitical challenge, and a potential opportunity, for India on its eastern frontiers, both land and maritime. Thant’s Where China Meets India is a great place to start if you want to understand those grand new imperatives.

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