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A “Silk Road” in Burma?

September 15, 2011

One cringes to read anything employing the tired phrase “new great game” or “new Silk Road,” but there is a reason such clichés persist in the geopolitical imagination. They capture the grandeur and exoticism of great power politics in non-Western Eurasia, with its diverse array of players and mysterious locales, all the while aspiring to a self-reaffirming claim to be the new cockpit of Asia or the world. Of course, the terms are historically applied, and politically regurgitated, to Central Asia. Now, however, Thant-Myint U wants to apply them to Burma.

Now, I would agree that Burma is a country whose importance to the global scene is likely to increase in the coming decades. However, the degree of centrality such narratives afford to it is eminently misleading and perhaps even dangerous. The actual great game is instructive as to why that importance will not necessarily translate to the centrality of Burmese politics or the rise of Burma as a true crossroads.

In the original Great Game, Afghanistan was feared, not valued, as a crossroads. Historically, Afghanistan’s primary value to foreign powers had been to secure an avenue for invasion of an adjacent territory. To a defending state, that made it valuable as a buffer or a denied area. As I have pointed out in previous posts, investment in buffer states has a dual potential. All of those transportation links make it easier for a foreign power to invade or use the buffer against the opposite neighbor. Even investments in hydropower can be used to affect strategic leverage over other states, as the Chinese dam project in Burma demonstrates.

There is, after all, a reason that Afghanistan and the other strategic crossroads of the Heartland remain undeveloped and their potential for transportation links similarly so. The answer most likely lies not in the inability of these states to achieve vibrant democracy, but the deliberate strategies of geopolitical control by great powers and maintaining domestic authority by internal rulers. Developing transportation infrastructure in Afghanistan would have made it, and its neighbors, more vulnerable to military intervention. Massive investments would have disrupted the control of local elites.

Burma will likely face similar problems. There is a false choice of possible outcomes as being either great power war or successful development and wealth. After all, the original Great Game did not result in a major war between great powers. It will be one of several theaters of competition between India and China, absolutely. Like Afghanistan, however, there is much lower likelihood of it becoming the flash point of direct conflict. Even were either China or India to actually deploy troops into Burma (or any other power, for that matter), a neighboring state wishing to stymie these efforts would have a wide selection of potential proxies to choose from. Given that China and India have outstanding border disputes along thousands of kilometers of border they share, it is difficult to see Burma becoming a direct battleground.

The potential for indirect warfare, however, is precisely why I find myself less optimistic about Burma’s prospects. The multiplicity of candidates for foreign proxies is a reflection of the fragmented nature of Burma itself. After all, much of the investments being made in northern Burma are only possible because of careful management of separatist groups, such as the Kachin Independence Army, and their relations with the Tatmadaw, by the Chinese government. Peace and investment are not linked in a virtuous cycle, but often opposing goals in a country with a history of centrifugal ethnic violence. New investments do not necessarily placate opposition to the Tatmadaw, but may instead open up new opportunities for exerting leverage against it. The KIA assumed erroneously that they could leverage ties with China and the new “elected” government’s desires for legitimacy to improve its bargaining position, but instead, China opted to support Burmese crackdowns on the Kachin rather than leave its investments beholden to local politics.

So it is correct to say that Burmese politics do matter beyond their borders – but this does not necessarily mean good things for the Burmese. Being a buffer state – and that is what Burma is – is often a recipe for invasion and even state death if its terrain is vulnerable to foreign military forces, or proxy warfare and geostrategic denial if it is relatively impassable. In many ways, a rich and prosperous Burma would be more destabilizing for the region than an isolated, hollow, internally fractured state. As with Poland, or Iran, a weak buffer state is amenable to the carving of implicit or explicit spheres of influence, and cannot muster enough power to be a significant factor in balancing equations. This opens its own problems, but they are manageable. The lack of centralization, control, and adequate state power in Burma reduces the potential security dilemma it poses to the rest of the region.

A rich and vibrant Burma, however, could begin to alter the diplomatic and military balance of the region. Generally, when states that previously operated as buffers begin to operate in such a role, the potential for that state to swing from one of its neighbors to the other heightens the security dilemma and the potential for a wider conflict. Thus the agreeable solution for the neighboring great powers is all too often to try and undercut the buffering state. Ultimately, then, in the competition of China versus India, the submission of Burma, whether as a strong client or a deliberately weakened state, is probably more likely than a simultaneous overcoming of its internal difficulties and the external quandaries of its buffer state status.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Alex Lind permalink
    September 20, 2011 9:49 am

    Actually, if you read Thant Myint-U’s book, you’ll see that he’s not trying to use the terms Great Game or Silk Road to describe the region around Burma or its new connections to India and China. He starts in his prologue (from which the FP piece is excerpted) by explaining that something is happening, and that some observers have either talked about a new Great Game (eg a TIme Magazine cover on India-Burma-China a couple of years ago) or a new Silk Road (Chinese think-tanks all refer to a new “Southern Silk Road” through Burma. He asks whether either is really a good description of what is taking place. His book is an attempt to offer a more nuanced description of things, set within the context of local histories.

    • September 20, 2011 10:07 am

      Thanks for the update. Good to hear the book rejects these tropes. All that said, I think the role of Burma as a buffer state still does have some pretty unsatisfactory implications for the likely future of the country (And certainly rather less optimistic than some of the guesses he’s offered up elsewhere).

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