Towards An Asian Century

. 11/15/11

By Raghu Dayal*

China's amazingly rapid and increasingly assertive rise with its vigorous 'smile diplomacy' towards countries in Asia and Africa has been in contrast with India's slothful energies generally generating wariness, even indignation, among several of its South Asian neighbours. Nevertheless some of the most recent initiatives such as the accords with Myanmar, Vietnam and Bangladesh augur well for India to win and influence friends in the region around.

Myanmar, the size of France and Britain combined, strangely outside the eight-nation Saarc fold, commands a strategic location with the potential to change the geography in the sub-region. Recognising Myanmar as a natural bridge between the Asean and India, the Indian side reiterated during the recent state visit of President U Thein Sein its intention of building upon the commonalities and synergies between the two countries. This could advance its Look East policy, which itself signifies hope for the idea of an Asian Century.

Let India shed its hallmark lethargy and stupor, and infuse the requisite vitality and pace in its programmes; for example, build Myanmar's infrastructure and develop human capital.

For most of the past 2,000 years, it was India, not China, that enjoyed the closest connections with Southeast Asia. Burma, now Myanmar, was for over 50 years a part of the Bri-tish Indian empire, although it never formed an integral part of India. In the early 20th century, Myanmar 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 Yangon, into an 'Indian city'.

But much water has flown down the Irrawaddy since then. Tens of thousands of ethnic Indians had left at Myanmar's independence, while about 400,000 others were compelled to leave in 1964 following the ultra-nationalist army regime coming to power in 1962. The Indian population in Myanmar is now only a fraction of what it once was.

On the contrary, Myanmar is being drawn into the Chinese economic orbit. Mandalay is like a Chinese city now; of its population of about a million, at least a third are Chinese. China's forays into Myanmar have often been exploitative: the forests of its north andeast chopped down, the jade mines of the Kachin Hills denuded, many endangered species hunted and shipped.

Unrestrained China is ubi-quitous in infrastructure projects such as a deep sea port for oil tankers to take gas from the offshore Shwe field through 1,000-mile-long oil and gas pipelines. Like the huge hydroelectric projects on the Irrawaddy and Salween, this also has a strategic dimension, a part of resolving what President Hu Jintao in 2003 called 'The Malacca Dilemma', referring to China's dependence on the Straits of Malacca as its primary energy transit route. Despite this flurry of diverse activities, few jobs have been created for local people; a more unequal society has been established.

There is no historical precedent for the epic moves that are now unfolding. In the context of global economic power inexorably shifting to the east, and the changing geography of Asia, the triangular dynamic involving Beijing, New Delhi and Naypyidaw bristles with immense possibilities. China's string of pearls policy has, to many, meant a covert encirclement of India. Its tightening hold over Myanmar alarms India andother states in the region.

Even so, destined to be perhaps the two most important countries, home to more than one-third of the world's population, China and India are billed for stellar roles on the world stage of tomorrow - and have this great responsibility to be a part of, as much as a trigger for, a stable and peaceful world. In the 16 {+t} {+h} century, China and India together formed half the world's economy. Within a generation, this could well be the case again.

There is a history of Burma becoming a bridge between India and China. It appears that the time has come once again for the virtually defunct road to be reopened. The long sea route for vessels between several countries in the region via the Straits of Malacca could be replaced by a considerably shorter land route. The effect would be a mini version of what the Suez Canal did for the old Cape of Good Hope route.

With welcome winds of change now blowing through Myanmar, the time seems conducive to initiate these measures. To answer the obvious objections of geopolitical stra-tegists that road and rail links to China will raise the spectre of a militant China virtually invited to invade India, it can only be said that Chinese military superiority in any case makes that possible, with or without linkages.

What happened in India's last armed conflict with China happened without any such bridges. In any case, the Chinese rail link from Tibet to Kathmandu is a near reality; once that is through, they are at our doorstep.

Hope, not fear, is the creative impulse in life. Wisdom demands both sides realise there can be no war that either can really win - and there can be no peace that they can lose.

* The writer is a current affairs analyst and former CEO of a public sector company.

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