Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Burma´s importance for China and India
Corriere della Sera - September 27th 2007

What happens now to the brave protestors in Burma, whether monks or ordinary citizens, is chiefly important for the Burmese themselves and for the fate of their dreadfully poor and troubled country. Outsiders like George Bush may say what they like—though what he says about the importance of human rights is correct—but their comments will make little difference. Nevertheless, we should note that what happens in Burma will also have an important impact on the two rising giants that are the country’s neighbours and which have been vying quietly for influence over it: China and India.

            The stakes are highest for China. It has four vital interests in Burma that could all be damaged if the Burmese military junta were to collapse. The first interest is simple: trade, totalling well over $1 billion a year, with related involvement in oil and gas exploration. The second is strategic: close relations with the military regime give China access through Burma to the Indian Ocean, enabling it to bypass the bottleneck of the Malacca Straits (between Singapore and Malaysia) in the event of an emergency, and to put surveillance posts in Burma and on its offshore islands.

            The third, though, is a mixture of religion and politics. If the Buddhist monks of Burma succeed in overturning the regime they will have set an inspiring example to their fellow Buddhists of Tibet. China’s control over Tibet is much tighter than the Burmese regime’s hold on its own country. But there is a forthcoming event about which the Chinese are worried: the succession to the current Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader in the event of his death. He is 72 and in good health. When he dies, however, there will be a dispute over who is his reincarnation and thus successor. A Burmese precedent could make that dispute bolder and bloodier.

The fourth interest is in China’s reputation. If it is associated with either a collapsed dictatorship or a bloody crackdown, then that reputation will be hurt. The rise in China’s global influence, resulting from its wealth but also from the fall of America’s prestige, will come to an abrupt halt.

India shares some of these interests. It too has big trading ties with Burma, and is an investor in Burmese gas fields. Thanks to that, it has maintained a strict policy of “no comment” on the behaviour of the Burmese military in recent years, describing such behaviour as Burma’s own business and not India’s. It is vying for strategic influence, hoping to prevent Burma from falling under China’s sway. It has in effect supported the military junta and ignored human rights in order to prevent a worse outcome: a Chinese takeover.

Nevertheless, India has much to gain if the monks do succeed. Burma’s natural cultural and historical links are with India rather than with China, a point that is also true of Tibet. A diminution of Chinese influence would suit India well, and reduce the challenge to its domination of the Indian Ocean.

It is quiet and discreet. It is mainly implicit rather than explicit. But while the events in Burma are first and foremost a struggle for freedom and democracy, they also have a second form of relevance to the world’s future. They represent the first struggle for control or influence in their region between Asia’s new giants, China and India. We should all hope that India gets the better outcome.


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