Myanmar: A Strategic Asian Hinge?

Myanmar (formerly Burma), occupies a unique place within Southeast Asian cross-border diplomacy. Straddled to the east and west by India and China and controlling access to the Bay of Bengal, the country’s recent re-emergence onto the world stage and flickers of political progress at the hands of a ruling military junta, may signal a larger, more important shift in Asian diplomatic and economic relations. Indeed, the country’s rising strategic importance has not gone unnoticed by the U.S. and China. Yet what is particularly intriguing about Myanmar’s rebirth—long a hermit kingdom in the vein of North Korea—is the ancillary effects it will have on the fractious relationship between China and India.

The pace and tenor of China’s cross-border diplomacy with Myanmar has shifted with its growing influence on the world stage. The U.S. has begun to take its lead from the pro-democracy dissident leader and Nobel Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has a status parallel to Nelson Mandela among the Burmese people. Kyi has emerged as a critical element of Myanmar’s position as a highly strategic wedge in Southeast Asian diplomatic and economic relations. The dynamics of the Chinese, Indian and Burmese nexus are fraught with conflict. How a new, politically and economically open Myanmar fits into the Asia-Pacific region, is of paramount importance to the larger diplomatic initiative between the U.S. and China. Moreover, could Myanmar’s resurgence be a game changer for the rest of Asia, breaking the cultural, political and economic barriers between China and India?

Myanmar is a study in contrasts, at once ossified by a closed economic posture and a vastly underdeveloped commercial sector, yet straddled by two of the world’s most dynamic emerging economies. As the military junta’s legacy of Orwellian, repressive rule begins to give way to a new reformist government, there has been a confluence of reactions from both Washington and the Burmese government—a realization that actual reforms and the easing of sanctions may allow the country to regain its economic luster. Yet does Myanmar’s positioning relative to rising superpowers and pressure by U.S., Japanese and Indian interests to curtail China’s dominance in the region, spell a recipe for conflict? It is perhaps this very divergence between Indian and Chinese interests that make Myanmar such a compelling phenomenon within contemporary global politics.

Myanmar’s mountains and jungles have long served as a great barrier against China. Going back thousands of years, since the advent of the Han Dynasty, China has always sought to venture south and west. The topography between the two countries is critically important to the evolution of the Burmese-Chinese relationship. Trade routes that were forced to traverse a mountainous southwest corner that bordered the Tibetan plateau, and cross over deep gorges and jungles to reach the border, remained a significant impediment to economic cooperation prior to the twentieth century. Since the Han’s discovery of India and what is now Myanmar, there has been a steady, albeit gradual, movement of the Chinese political frontier in this direction. It is natural that as Myanmar begins to reassert itself into the currents of economic and political life of East Asia, China has once again emerged as both a strategic partner and foe.

The economic and political relationship between China and Myanmar represents a complex and delicate waltz between both Chinese and Indian economic interests. China needs Myanmar for access to the Bay of Bengal, hydroelectric projects, mining and timber. As a comparatively resource poor country—people and coal—China responds acutely to what they perceive to be efforts to ring-fence and curtail their growth and influence in the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S.’s new efforts at engagement with Myanmar will only inflame this unease. Myanmar could potentially serve as a counterweight to Chinese influence, acting as an economic bridge between India, Bangladesh and China. Yet if by becoming a crossroads between India and China, Myanmar becomes a pawn between two competing economic powers, her progress may be stunted by armed conflict, an influx of political refugees and economic exploitation. There is thus a delicate balance between becoming a vital cultural, economic and political bridge in Southeast Asia, and falling victim to Chinese and Indian commercial interests.

Toward this end, China is putting capital to work in Myanmar, with an eye toward critical hydroelectric and natural resource mining projects. Myanmar’s vastly underdeveloped commercial sector has thus far impeded attempts to promote cross-border trade and facilitate economic partnership. Yet two oil and gas pipelines, to be used as a strategic hedge against the 80 percent of China’s reserves that currently flow through the Strait of Malacca (nestled between Malaysia and Indonesia), have given the Chinese an important stake in the country’s economic future. New roads linking China’s Yunan province to India, and plans for a high-speed rail between Shanghai and the Myanmar coast, add to the potential for Chinese contact with the Indian and Bangladeshi borders. Indeed, after centuries of topographical separation between India and China, this convergence of interests may spell friction for Myanmar. Toward this end, is this a recipe for a form of pseudo-colonization and economic exploitation? Myanmar is deeply neutralistic and if forced to seek Indian or Japanese aid in the face of Chinese regional dominance, could signal an immense shift in its entire diplomatic posture vis-à-vis both the U.S. and its regional partners.

The strategy of engagement with these Southeast Asian economies is often perceived as a means to counter Chinese influence. Indeed, the Chinese perceive this engagement as part of grand strategy to curtail their interests in the region. Yet as Myanmar becomes a more open and important player in the East Asian balance of power, it is natural that the U.S. will seek the opportunity for a more balanced set of relationships.

Peter is a senior at Fordham College, studying economics, and can be reached at lachman@fordham.edu

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