W hen the geography changes, the old relations between countries give way to new relationships, strangers become neighbors and remote areas become highly strategic areas. This is what happened when the Suez Canal linking Europe came to the Indian Ocean or when the rail networks have transformed the American west and east of Russia ... At this time, groups integers are entered in decline while others took the rise.
Asian geography revisited
In the coming years, the Asian geography undergo fundamental changes, linking for the first time China and India in what was once a neglected more than 1,500 kilometers, extending from Calcutta to the Yangtze basin border. As for Burma, long seen by the West as an elusive scheme which is part of the wildest in the case of human rights violation, it may soon be at a new global crossroads, highly strategic. With infrastructure projects of colossal magnitude, an environment that could never believe inhospitable will be tamed. In addition, Burma and surrounding regions, which have long served as a barrier between two ancient civilizations, are at a great turning point in their history on demographic, environmental and political. And while old borders open, the map of Asia redraws.
For thousands of years, India and China were separate, on the one hand, by an almost impenetrable jungle rife very deadly malaria as well as wild animals and, secondly, by the Himalayas and desert area of the Tibetan plateau. The two countries have forged a clean, distinct identity to each other, whether ethnically, linguistically and culturally. To save India from China or vice versa, monks, missionaries, merchants and diplomats had to travel by camel or horse thousands of miles across the oases and deserts of Central Asia and Afghanistan. Sometimes they were doing the boat ride through the Bay of Bengal and the Strait of Malacca to reach the South China Sea.
At the same time that economic power is shifting eastward, the configuration of the east evolves. The last great frontier of the continent is beginning to clear, so that Asia will soon form a cohesive unit.
Burma, the first country
Burma is located in the heart of these changes. This is not a small country : it is equivalent in area to France and Britain combined. But its population (60 million people) is relatively low side of the 2.5 billion people that matter to them both its gigantic neighbors. Burma is, in fact, the missing link between China and India.
This is an unlikely center of XXI century. One of the poorest in the world, torn by a series of armed conflicts that seem eternal. For nearly 50 years, pension or military-dominated military-succession to power. In 1988, after a bloody demonstration for democracy crackdown, a new junta seized power. She agreed to cease hostilities against former communist insurgents and "ethnic" and wanted to phase out a self-imposed isolation. But in the face of repressive policies, Western sanctions have not delayed. In addition, the growing corruption coupled with poor governance quickly eroded any hope of progress, not least at the economic level.
So in the mid-1990s, the view of Western countries on Burma was virtually frozen: they saw a lost country, outside of time, in bankruptcy, the brutal realm of juntas and barons drugs. But it also housed courageous pro-democracy activists, first and foremost a woman Aung San Suu Kyi . It was a country that needed humanitarian aid and remained outside the economic rise of Asia in the world.
China adopts a different perspective
China, however, had a different perspective on Burma. While the West saw as problems and merely rehashing platitudes and ship a little help, Beijing saw an opportunity and decided to initiate change on the ground.
From the second half of the 1990s, the Middle Kingdom has begun to reveal its plans to connect its hinterland to the coast of the Indian Ocean. In the mid-2000s, China was in the process of implementing these plans. New roads begin to roam the mountainous regions of Burma, connecting directly to the bottom of the Chinese mainland India and the warm waters of the Gulf of Bengal.
One of these highways will lead to a port with a brand new building will cost several billion dollars, it will facilitate the export of manufactured goods from the eastern regions of China and the import of oil from the Persian Gulf and of Africa. This oil will be transported by a new pipeline of 1,600 kilometers long to Chinese refineries far in landlocked province of Yunnan. Installed in parallel, a pipeline will transport the Burmese offshore natural gas recently discovered and used to supply power to the boom town of Kunming and Chongqing (China). In addition, more than $ 20 billion will be injected into a line of railway at high speed. Soon, trips that once took months can be done in less than a day. Officials believe that the work by 2016, it will be possible to train the Burmese capital, Rangoon, in Beijing. And one day this huge line will continue until New Delhi and even reach Europe!
And if Burma became the Chinese California? Long ago that Beijing sees a dim view of the widening gap between the incomes of severely cities and prosperous eastern provinces and many remote and poor areas of the west. What is lacking in China, this is another side to the interior of the country can have access to the sea and its international growth markets. Chinese intellectuals talk about politics "two oceans", the first being the Pacific, the second, the Indian Ocean. In this sense, Burma serves as a bridge to the Gulf of Bengal and the seas on which it gives.
Chinese leaders also discussed the " Malacca dilemma . " China's economy relies heavily on oil, and about 80% of China's oil imports now pass through the Strait of Malacca. Located near Singapore is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and its most narrow part measures only 2.7 km wide. For Chinese strategists, the strait is a natural bottleneck constriction where future enemies could block China's energy imports. Hence the need to find an alternative route.
Again, access by Burma have advantages: China would include less dependent on the Strait of Malacca and it would be a way to significantly reduce the distance between the Chinese factories, markets in Europe and the periphery of the Indian Ocean. With the added bonus of the wealth of Burma raw materials, especially those that feed the industrial development of the South-West of China.
The position of India
For its part, India is not without ambition. As part of its policy of "opening to the east," since the 1990s, successive Indian governments seek to renew and strengthen with the Far East maritime and land ancestral links that pass through Burma. India has drilled previously sealed geological and vegetative barriers. North of the area where China is building a pipeline along the Burmese coast, India has begun work to revive another port with a special road and waterway leading to the Assam and other isolated states and conflict-affected north-eastern India. There is even talk of reopening the Stillwell Road , which was built by the Allies at a huge cost in the Second World War, but is now abandoned. This route would go to the extreme of India to join the Chinese province of Yunnan. Indian politicians never fail to emphasize the importance of Burma for the security and development of the northeast of the country and closely monitor the Chinese conducted regarding Burma.
Some observers have warned against a new "Great Game , "which could lead to a conflict between the two major emerging powers of the world. Others predict rather the creation of a new Silk Road , such as the Middle Ages, linking China to Europe via Central Asia. It is important to remember that this geographic transformation comes at a crucial moment in the history of Asia, a period of peace and growing prosperity, after a century of unprecedented violence and conflict, and several centuries of Western colonial domination . A positive scenario is quite conceivable.
A new generation of optimistic
Today's young Asians come to adulthood in a continent both postcolonial and (with some exceptions) after the war. While there may be new rivalries feed clean nationalisms XXI century and create a new "Great Game" . But Asia exudes optimism almost everywhere, at any rate among the middle classes and elites from which the decision-makers: they feel that history is on their side and want to look to the future and prosperity Instead of rehashing the dark times, as recent as they are.
The construction of a crossroads in Burma is not confined to connect countries. The two regions of China and India it is a question of bringing through Burma are among the most remote of the two giant states. These are areas of ethnic and linguistic diversity unmatched (their populations speak without exaggeration, hundreds of languages, very different from each other) or forgotten realms, such as Manipur or Dali. These are people of the highlands which, until recently, beyond the control of New Delhi or Beijing.
These are also areas that were previously sparsely populated, mainly because they were covered with forests, which have recently experienced a population boom. These new territories create new neighbors. Unlike the fall of the Berlin Wall, which had only restore contacts interrupted for a time, the changes taking place in Asia opens up the possibility of new human encounters. A cosmopolitan core at the heart of Asia ...
A modern Silk Road Is seeing the day? Until earlier this year, it was still difficult to be optimistic because the news from Burma-the first country here were simply disastrous. The majority of Burmese living in abject poverty, political repression is more than ever essential. As for Chinese projects, they seemed more fuel corruption and environmental degradation than anything else. Last year, new elections were held, but it was widely denounced their fraudulent nature .
The New Face of Burma
In recent months, however, we see more and more warning signs of relatively better days.
In March, the junta was formally dissolved and power returned to a quasi civilian government, headed by a retired general Thein Sein. Fast enough, President Thein Sein has surprised those who do not expect much, he took a strong stand against corruption, stressed the urgency of a political reconciliation by appointing technocrats and men of Business in strategic positions and inviting exiles to return home. He also announced the holding of peace talks with rebel groups, holding the hand to Aung San Suu Kyi, shortly before her release from house arrest. General Thein Sein has implemented policies to fight against poverty, lower taxes, freer trade and provided a long series of new laws on a range of topics, including banking reform and regulations protecting the environment, which must be ratified by Parliament. A Parliament, after a difficult start, was finally put to use. Media censorship has eased considerably . Opposition parties and Burmese NGOs booming now have a degree of freedom unprecedented in half a century.
Although still fragile, this is a real opening. The Burmese president seems determined to work in this direction. The problem is that it is not the only political actor in the country. Parliament and the Council of Ministers have other former powerful generals. And repressive structures remain intact. This is a decisive moment for the country.
For the first time in its history, Burma and its internal politics are of importance beyond its immediate borders. If we miss this opportunity for positive change, this nation may continue to undergo pernicious governance. One thing is certain, it will not be the isolated country that we knew, as major infrastructure projects undertaken by China will continue, as well as the process of change in the very long term. Asian frontier will close and then there will be a new but dangerous crossroads.
But if Burma is on the path of progress and some essential conditions - the end of the armed conflict that lasted for decades, the end of Western sanctions, the advent of a democratic Burmese government and some economic growth - the consequences could be dramatic: within China suddenly coexist with a young democracy full of ambition, and north-eastern India, now considered a cul-de-sac, become a bridge leads to the Far East. Following the events in Burma could change the course of the strategic game in Asia.
Former research associate at the University of Cambridge, where he taught history. He is the author of Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia . This article is adapted.
Translated by Micha Cziffra