October 16, 2011

Where China Meets India: Burma and the new crossroads of Asia: Thant Myint-U (Book review)

Where China Meets India: Burma and the new crossroads of Asia: Thant Myint-U (Book review)

SATURDAY, 15 OCTOBER 2011 20:58 PIONEER

The book gives a fascinating account of how the India-China rivalry would shape international politics, particularly in Asia, and how Burma is all set to play a significant role in all this, writes Raghu Dayal

Where China Meets India: Burma and the new crossroads of Asia

Author: Thant Myint-U

Publisher: Faber and Faber

Price: Rs 699

Blending history and travelogue with personal reminiscences, author Thant Myint-U, grandson of former UN Secretary-General U Thant, recounts the strategic location of Burma, linking the most far-flung regions of China and India. In the 16th century, the two countries together formed half the world’s economy. Within a generation this could be the case again, the author says. No wonder, the land where the two countries meet — Burma — gains a pre-eminent position in today’s world.

Currently, China’s presence in Burma is all-pervasive. There was, however, a time in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when, with Burma being firmly part of the Indian empire, India was expanding towards China, not the other way around. Burma guarded India’s eastern flank as a buffer against China as well as against the French, who were then moving up the Mekong river from Saigon. British India saw Tibet as part of its “sphere of influence” and western Yunnan as part of its expanding backyard, which is now an integral part of China.

For most of the past 2,000 years, it was India — not China — which enjoyed a close relationship with South-East Asia. The region was known to Indians as Suvarnabhumi, the ‘Land of Gold’. The overwhelming majority of people in Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia profess Buddhism, and more than 90 per cent of people on the island of Bali in Indonesia are Hindu. Indian classics such as the Ramayana are still popular in South-East Asia.

In the early 20th century, as the author says, Burma enjoyed a higher standard of living than India. As its economy grew, there was a need for labour as well as entrepreneurial and professional skills — all of which came from India. By the 1920s, the influx from India turned Rangoon (now Yangoon) into an Indian city, with the Burmese reduced to a minority. But this world came crashing down; the aerial bombing of Rangoon had hundreds of thousands of Indians flee. The Indian population is now only a fraction of what it once was.

Today, the Chinese model is in the ascendancy in South-East Asia. Burma, too, is being drawn into the Chinese economic orbit. Over the past 20 years, China has emerged as the Burmese Government’s most reliable supporter. Beijing has provided hundreds of millions of dollars worth of military hardware, including planes and tanks, as well as crucial diplomatic protection at the United Nations and elsewhere. The Burmese economy is today tied more closely to China’s than at any other time in modern history.

China was once much worse off than Burma. In the 1930s, Burma’s per capita GDP was at least twice that of China’s. By the 1960s, China had caught up. Today, China’s per capita GDP is at least six-times greater.

There has been an unprecedented migration of ethnic Chinese into Burma. Of about a million strong population in Mandalay, at least a third are now the Chinese. Unrestrained China, “a plundering behemoth” as the author says, is ubiquitous in infrastructure projects, building roads and dams, cutting down teak forests, mining for jade, and selling its own consumer goods. By early 2010, construction had begun on the oil and gas pipelines that would connect China’s southwest across Burma to the Bay of Bengal. They would run from Mandalay past Ruili, first to Yunnan and then to the Guangxi autonomous region and the mega city of Chongqing. Like the huge hydroelectric projects on the Irrawaddy and Salween, these pipelines have a strategic dimension as well — a part of resolving what President Hu Jintao called ‘The Malacca Dilemma’ in 2003.

When the Sino-Burmese borders were first opened up in the late 1980s, the first sign of the new China was the flood of cheap Chinese goods into Burmese markets. By the late 1980s, hundreds of factories sprang up across the frontier, producing goods developed specifically for Burmese consumers. Then came the logging on a gargantuan scale. The forests of Burma’s north and east were mercilessly chopped down. In areas close to Burma more than 95 per cent of forest cover has been cut down over the past 30 years and much of the cleared land turned into rubber plantations. The jade mines of the Kachin Hills were another big attraction. Many endangered species — from snow leopards to rhinos — are hunted and shipped. Women, too, have become a commodity.

Initially, it was the US that became the Burmese military Government’s best friend abroad, providing military training and welcoming its then dictator, General Ne Win, to Washington. China would then call Burma’s generals “fascists” and actively plot the regime’s overthrow. Western sanctions pushed Burma’s ruling junta closer to Beijing and created an unusually privileged conditions for Chinese business.

The book gives a fascinating account of how the Sino-Indian rivalry would shape international politics, particularly in Asia, and how Burma is all set to play a key role in all this.

-The reviewer is Senior Fellow, Asian Institute of Transport Development


http://www.dailypioneer.com/sunday-edition/sundayagenda/books-reviews/13501-the-great-game-in-burma.html

India should play a proactive role in making Trans-Asian Highway and Trans-Asian Railway projects take off. See
http://www.amazon.com/Rastram-history-United-Indian-States/dp/0982897111/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1318818978&sr=8-1




Maps of Transasian Highway and Railway linking Bangkok and Vladivostok across Indian Ocean Community nations.

Kalyan


The Great Game in Burma

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