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Updated: January 2, 2012 23:34 IST

The great game in Myanmar

M. K. Bhadrakumar
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Chennai: 19/09/2011: The Hindu: OEB: Book Review Column: Title: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia Where China Meets India. Author: Thant Myint-U.
Chennai: 19/09/2011: The Hindu: OEB: Book Review Column: Title: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia Where China Meets India. Author: Thant Myint-U.

An eye-opener on the syndrome of ‘competition-cum-cooperation' that apparently characterises the India-China relationship

China, according to India's pundits, established in 1992 a SIGINT intelligence gathering station on the Great Coco Island — a forlorn penal colony in the Bay of Bengal that once belonged to the East India Company — to snoop on the sprawling Indian naval base in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and to watch the doings of the Indian scientists at nearby Sriharikota. The fable slyly lingered despite denials — including by an Indian navy chief. Supplemented by two equally addictive fables over Gwadar and Hambantota, it served to embellish the airy thesis of the ‘string of pearls' — the Chinese dragon denying the Indian elephant of oxygen for survival in its own natural habitat.

The most striking thing about Where China Meets India by Thant Myint-U, a well-known historian and former United Nations official, is that it drills a hole into this fantasy land that India's ‘Sinologists' created. But when you turn the last page of this many-splendoured work — part personal recounting, part history, part travelogue and part policy analysis — what stuns you is the absolutely pedestrian nature of what passes for China studies in India.

The book is an eye-opener on the syndrome of ‘competition-cum-cooperation' that apparently characterises the India-China relationship. Indeed, how do you ‘compete' with a country that has surged ahead of India by 30 years in growth? Competing beyond capability can be risky, and any good boxer knows what eventually happens when one punches above one's weight.

Surely, India can afford to be cool and at peace with itself. Its pattern of growth and development offers a marvellous experiment that has no parallel in human history. And it merits appreciation without having to be compared with China's trajectory. While travelling in Thant's company, it becomes obvious that in remote regions of Myanmar, where China's businessmen feverishly gather timber, jade, or rubber, India's ‘soft power' permeates the air, despite neglect by Delhi.

Tragic portrayal

Thant gives a tragic portrayal of Myanmar, which is under compulsion to seize opportunities arising largely out of China's phenomenal rise. But Myanmar has a personality of its own and is entitled to its dream of being more than a mere Silk Road and deserves to play role in the global village. If China is making headway in Myanmar, it is because it is careful not to attempt to make that country a resentful satellite or be prescriptive towards it. Thant says, “Beijing's Burma policy has been dictated first and foremost by what will help Yunnan's economy move forward … it [Myanmar] occupies a critical space on China's south-western flank, right next to its densest concentration of ethnic minorities… In general, it seems that a mix of pragmatic considerations is shaping China's Burma policy.”

Thant sums up the great game thus: “Neither India nor the countries of south-eastern Asia have so far been able to compare with what China has been offering and able to deliver. India is no further from Mandalay or even Maymyo than China, but contemporary Indian influences are practically non-existent … Will India ever become the ‘balancer' of China in the region? ... From a distance, China's and India's stated desires to find new links to and across Burma seem straight forward, [and] the question is only of their relative prowess. But here [in Myanmar] it was clear that it wasn't all about Beijing and Delhi, and that Burmese fears and desires will also be a major factor in determining the future.”

Huge ambitions

Thant keeps revisiting this theme — the centrality of Myanmar's geographic, cultural and historic positioning between India and China. Today, the influence is overwhelmingly coming from China, but China also has huge ambitions. Myanmar is rich in natural resources and China is willing to bankroll any efforts to exploit these resources. He writes, “What China is lacking is its California, another coast that would provide its remote interior provinces with an outlet to the sea.” The Chinese strategists see Myanmar as the bridge to the Bay of Bengal and the waters beyond. But, ultimately, Myanmar is also a shrewd practitioner of opportunism and wariness — be it toward the United Kingdom, India or China.

There is a fascinating chapter on the dreams they weave in Kuming, where they see a future for Yunnan's wealth and prosperity in terms of India's economy, which the road and rail links through Myanmar can facilitate. Delhi, on the other hand, needs a leap of faith to have a counterpart dream for India's impoverished north-eastern States in terms of Yunnan. The spirit of ‘competition' can be self-defeating. Yet, Yunnan needs to be compared with India's neglected north-eastern States. Thant says pithily, “For much of its early history, Burma's neighbour to the northeast was not China, but the independent kingdom of Yunnan.”

The book is, of course, much more than about the great game. At its core, it is a gripping account of the rich tapestry of tribalism and ethnicity that gives Myanmar an air of volatility, which we overlook when we use the broad brush of democracy versus authoritarianism. Thant's account is loaded — and possibly even dangerous — especially when he crosses the border into China and takes account of the historic variety of China's own component parts.

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