Burma – Where China & India Collide – From “Monsoon” by Robert Kaplan

It is not called the Indian Ocean for nothing. As Kaplan writes, “India stands sentinel astride the major sea-lanes from the Straits of Hormuz to the Straits of Malacca.” He later adds that “a million ships pass through the various Indian Ocean straits each year.”

In our first review of “Monsoon”, we looked at the Straits of Hormuz which connects the western end of the Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf. In this article, we look at the Straits of Malacca which connect the eastern end of the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean.

The old saying “whoever is Lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice” demonstrates the absolute stranglehold of this relatively tiny body of water on both the Far East and Europe. Look at the strategic position of India’s Andaman & Nicobar Islands in the map below.  According to Kaplan, Chinese military analysts worry that the 244 islands that constitute India’s Andaman-Nicobar archipelago can be used as a metal chain to lock shut the western entrance of the Malacca Straits on which China depends so desperately for its oil deliveries. This is why China is worried about the emergence of a capable Indian navy.

Look at the map again. What country could provide a solution to China’s “Malacca dilemma” as President Hu Jin Tao called it? The obvious answer is Burma, the small country that sits above the Malacca Straits between India’s eastern states and China’s western provinces. Burma offers the most direct route into China. If China wanted to avoid the Malacca Straits, it could build a port on the western side of Burma and connect it to China with a network of roads through Burma into China.

China is doing precisely that. Look at Kyauk Phru, the small black dot just above and to the right of the words “Bay of Bengal” in the map below. China is building a new port at Kyack Phru capable of handling the world’s largest container ships. Kyack Phru is not just a superb natural harbor. It sits near the Shwe gas fields in the Arakan State of Burma adjacent to Bangladesh and India’s eastern states of Mizoram and Nagaland. The Shwe fields are contain one of the world’s largest reserves of natural gas.

China also got permission to set up intelligence listening stations along Burma’s border with India. This woke up India in 2001. Since then, India has launched its own efforts to build in Burma and to protect the Burmese regime from being a vassal state of China. In 2007, India launched a $100 million project to develop the Burmese port of Sittwe on the Bay of Bengal. This port could connect India’s northeastern states to the Bay of Bengal through the Kaladan river. (In the map below, Sittwe is just above the words ARAKAN State which is just above Kyuak Phru).

India is building a natural gas pipeline to carry the gas from the Shwe gas fields to India’s northeastern states and Bengal. According to Kaplan, “this pipeline will go north through Arakan and Chin provinces, and then split up into two sections: one transiting Bangladesh to Kolkata, and the other reaching Kolkata by transiting Indian territory all the way around Bangladesh.” These ambitious plans will enable faster development of India’s landlocked states like Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur.


                           (Map courtesy of Random House, publisher of “Monsoon”)

Now look how close Kyauk Phru and Sittwe are in the map above. This intense competition in close proximity illustrates why Kaplan says “China’s drive southward and India’s drive both westward and eastward means both powers collide in Burma. As China and India view for power and influence, Burma has become a quiet, strategic battleground.”

It has been a battleground through out history. In 1945, India’s Azad Hind Sena or INA (Indian National Army) marched with the Japanese across China and then across Burma in its effort to liberate India from British rule. The Azad Hind Sena entered India through Burma and reached the Indian states of Manipur & Nagaland. The last battles of this war were fought in Imphal in Manipur and Kohima in Nagaland. After the defeat of the Azad Hind Sena, the British tried the INA officers for treason. This provoked a huge outcry and resulted in the Bombay Mutiny in the British-led Indian Army. The INA, though unsuccessful, broke the loyalty of the Indian Army to British Rule and signalled the end of British rule in India.

The area has been linked to India for hundreds of years. The Indian-Buddhist Arakan kingdom of Wesali or Vaisali was founded in 788 CE. The Mahaa-Bhaarat (1,000 – 2,000 years BCE depending on the scale used) describes close links with this entire area with the Kuru Kingdom of Hastinapur (near today’s Delhi). Arjun, the greatest warrior of that era, married princesses from Manipur and Nagaland. Tales of his sons Babruvahan and Irawan are still told all over India.

Look at the map again. Burma is closely linked with Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Today, it sits in the center of the new rivalry between China and India across South East Asia. But Burma is not a unified land of one ethnic group. Burma consists of “states” dominated by Chin, Kachin, Shan, Karen and Karenni people besides the people from Myanmar who rule Burma today. This rule by a military junta is corrupt, violent and prone to coups. It may not take much to unravel it, writes Kaplan. Here is where Kaplan applies the lesson of Iraq, the lesson that shows the ease of removing a junta but then facing a difficult peace in a country “left with no infrastructure, no institutions”.

If Kaplan knows it, then so do the Burmese Generals. Apart from rich resources of timber and natural gas, Burma also has reserves of Uranium. According to Kaplan, the Russians are helping the Burmese government in the Kachin and Chin regions in the north & west to mine Uranium and the North Koreans are waiting in the wings to help them with nuclear technology.

What a wonderful prospect? On the western end of the Indian Ocean, we have Pakistan, a nuclearized military junta beset with three distinct ethnic groups that are virtual war with the ruling Panjabi regime. Now, on the eastern end of the Indian Ocean, we have the prospect of a nuclearized military junta in Burma beset with different ethnic groups that are at virtual war with ruling Myanmar regime.

Where is America in this Burmese mess? Kaplan thinks America’s best weapons in Burma are the Christian missionaries that are active among the various ethnic groups in Burma. They provide extremely valuable intelligence and create an environment of good will for America among the Burmese hill tribes. But, according to Kaplan, the active duty Special Operations community does not consider Burma as central to American security.

Perhaps that is for the better. After all, America tends to follow the British or French stereotypes when it enters Asia in a big way. Look where that got America, the mess in Vietnam and the quagmire in Afghanistan-
Pakistan. And what did the British do in Burma? Kaplan writes, “by moving the center of power from the royal courts at Ava and Mandalay in the heart of Burma to Rangoon and the Irawaddy delta hundreds of miles south on the Bay of Bengal, the British robbed the country (Burma) of whatever geographic logic it had ever possessed.”

Kaplan concludes with a look into the future. “…the Karens and Shans in the east and the Chins and Arakanese in the west will likely see their power increased in a post-junta, democratic Burma. That means the various pipeline agreements may have to be negotiated or renegotiated, at least to some degree, with the ethnic peoples living in the territories through which the pipelines would pass.”

Now look at Sittwe and Kyauk Phru again in the map above. Sittwe is very close to the Indian border and connected to India’s northeastern states by land and river. On the other hand, Kyauk Phru is far away from the Chinese border and the Chinese pipeline will have to cross all of Burma, through the regions dominated by the Chins, Karens & Shan people. This may be why Kaplan writes “the Chinese problems in Burma might just be beginning.”

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