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Bertil Lintner has written several books, most recently ‘China’s India War: Collision Course on the Roof of the World’. He writes for the Asia Times and other publications in Asia and Europe. He is an expert on Myanmar, ethnic minorities, insurgencies and narcotics in South and Southeast Asia.
Excerpts from the book:
A giant monument showing four figures wheeling a circular object between them, their determined faces pointing directly south, stands where the road on the wide, concrete bridge that spans the Ruili River leads into Jiegao, a tiny sliver of Chinese territory on the other side. The Chinese characters on the base of the monument spell out the phrase ’Unite, Blaze Paths, Forge Ahead!’ Or, in more mundane terms: ‘Southeast Asia, here we come!’
What is striking about this monument is not so much where it can be found. Jiegao, a roughly hewn two-square kilometre enclave completely surrounded by Myanmar, is a thriving commercial centre and the gateway to markets across the border and beyond. But the monument was placed there, with remarkable foresight, in1993, when the bridge had only just been built and Jiegao consisted of little more than paddy fields with a few bamboo huts scattered between them. Today, 25 years later, there are high-rise buildings, luxury hotels, stores offering all kinds of wares, and a huge jade market which buyers from all over China shop for this precious stone, which is found in its imperial green form only in Hpakan, in northernmost Myanmar.
Every morning, caravans of trucks laden with Chinese consumer goods pass through the border post at Jiegao and into Muse on the Myanmar side. They are destined for Lashio, Mandalay, Yangon and other Myanmar cities and towns and even places as far away as Tamu on Myanmar’s border with India. From Tamu, the goods are then brought into Moreh in India and from there on to Imphal, Dimapur, Kohima and Guwahati — the key cities in India’s northeastern states. Not only Myanmar but also northeastern India is being flooded with cheap Chinese merchandise.
For India, the road from Guwahati to Moreh is supposed to be its highway to Southeast Asia – and part of what used to be called a ‘Look East’, and now designated an ‘Act East’, policy. But, most of the convoys of lorries head in the opposite direction; it is China, not India, which benefits most from the opening of new trade routes through the state formerly known as Burma.
The trade imbalance is not quite as pronounced as at Jiegao, where huge amounts of jade are imported from Myanmar. But, that barely registers compared with the volume of Chinese exports heading in the opposite direction, through the border post. Apart from jade, there is little more than amber, petrified wood, seafood and fruit, coming from the Myanmar side. A once thriving timber trade has dwindled to almost nothing since China imposed restrictions — and the forests of northern Myanmar are now almost depleted of trees.
The Jiegao crossing is of utmost importance to the export oriented economic growth of China’s landlocked, southwestern provinces. But, not far from Ruili are newly laid pipelines through which oil and gas are being transported from the Myanmar coast to Yunnan, bypassing the vulnerable geostrategic choke point of the Malacca Strait. On the coast where the pipelines originate lies the port of Kyakpyu, the construction of which was announced in 2007 and which is still being expanded and upgraded with Chinese assistance.
Once massive cross-border trade developed following the construction of the bridge at Jiegao in the early 1990s, and the subsequent proclamation of the enclave as a free-trade zone, the vision of a trade corridor through Myanmar became a reality. China finally reached the Indian Ocean.
China also soon emerged as Myanmar’s largest trade partner, political ally and supplier of military hardware to the military junta that then ruled the country. At the same time, Chinese companies became involved in the construction of several hydroelectric power projects in Myanmar that were to supply Yunnan and other southwestern provinces with electricity.
A map in one of the hotels in Ruili shows grand plans to build a maze of new highways and railways from Yunnan through Myanmar, down to the Indian Ocean. ‘The Myanmar Corridor’ has become one of the most important features of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI), which he launched in 2013. Myanmar connects China with the markets of south and Southeast Asia; more importantly, it provides China with an outlet to the Indian Ocean, thus bolstering Beijing’s quest for geostrategic influence.
China’s interest in the Indian Ocean was first articulated in an article written by Pan Qi, a former Vice Minister of Communications, for the September 2, 1985 issue of the official Chinese weekly, Beijing Review, thus, well before even the establishment of the free-trade zone of Jiegao. Pan’s argument was that China would have to find an outlet for trade from the landlocked southwestern provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan and Guizhou, with a combined population of 160 million people. He mentioned the railways from Myitkyina and Lashio in the north and northeast of Myanmar respectively, and the Irrawaddy River that flows through Myanmar down to the Indian Ocean, as possible conduits for Chinese exports.
Pan also mentioned in his visionary article that “there was a road connecting western Yunnan with southeast and West Asia quite early in history: Zhan Qian, a Han dynasty diplomat who lived from 202 BC to 220 AD, helped open a southern ‘Silk Road’ from Sichuan and the artery was travelled for centuries”. There is no doubt that Zhang Qian wrote extensively about trade routes, including the Silk Road, to and from China, Central Asia and beyond. But, his attempts to forge a route from Sichuan to India proved unsuccessful. No ‘southern Silk Road’ ever existed.
In the past, China paid only scant attention to maritime ventures and it had ad no presence in the Indian Ocean since the 15th century, when an explorer and trader called Zheng sailed with his fleets to South and Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Arab peninsula, and even as far as the east coast of Africa.
Apart from Zheng He’s voyages 600 years ago, there is no historical precedent for China’s BRI, which consists of what the Chinese authorities call a ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ and a ‘21st Century Maritime Silk Road’. Together, these are intended to connect China to Europe via Central Asia, the Mediterranean, through the Persian Gulf, and South Asia via the Indian Ocean. According to official Chinese figures and statistics, the BRI encompasses 70 countries and estimates of what China will invest in it range from $1trillion to $8 trillion. It is the most ambitious development strategy in world history when it comes to one State supporting projects beyond its boundaries, surpassing even America’s Marshall Plan, which helped Europe rebuild after World War II…