Orange-robed, serene Buddhist monks recently engaged in the unserene business of unseating the junta in Myanmar. And the stoic Aung Sang Suu Kyi is engaged in an awkward, and very public, pirouette with the generals. But a quieter battle has been under way for two decades in Myanmar,?entirely undramatic, but profoundly consequential. Its quiet nature should not obscure the fact that it is a slugfest. In one corner, China. In the other, India. Sino-Indian competition for influence in the common hinterland of the two countries is heating up, and will get a lot hotter.
The influence is being leveraged for economic reasons—to sell cellphones, two-wheelers and sundry merchandise, and to source energy and natural resources—and for geopolitical reasons, for China to secure a route for energy that is an alternative to the vulnerable Malacca straits. Myanmar is now heavily dependent on China and India. In 2006, almost one-fifth of its exports and 40% of its imports were to or from these two countries, each of these numbers rising from 3% a couple of decades ago (when it was known as Burma).
For a long time, it might have seemed obvious that India would take the lead in competition for Burmese “hearts and minds”—and energy contracts. The historical and cultural ties between the two countries are long and deep. Burmese schoolchildren are taught that their country started when an Indian prince established a kingdom at Taguang, north of Mandalay, several thousand years ago. Much later, the British exiled Burmese King Thibaw to India and the last Mughal Emperor of India, Bahadur Shah Zafar, to Burma. And cosmopolitan Rangoon—more immigrant than immigrant New York of the time—had a population that was more than half Indian in the time of the British empire. Strong Indo-Burmese ties, thanks to warm personal relations between leaders Jawaharlal Nehru and U Nu, survived the demise of the British empire.
But more recent events have given China a chance to wedge its way into Burmese officials’ affections, and Beijing has seized the opportunity. While India actively supported the 1988 pro-democracy movement, China thumbed its nose at world opinion, cozying up to the generals in return for timber, raw materials and sea lane access. China runs interference for the generals in international forums, and Myanmar has been a recipient of Beijing’s arms largesse, in a “middle rung” of recipient countries, primarily behind Pakistan and Iran.
The result within Myanmar is visible in Mandalay, a major city that lies almost exactly between China and India. In short, there is no residual Indian influence in Mandalay. More than one-fifth of the population is Chinese. Mandarin pop tunes can be heard on the street. The more austere India-inspired Buddhist pagodas have given way to gaudier Chinese ones. Indian merchants, once the lifeblood of the Burmese economy, have long vanished. Nor is this purely a phenomenon in urban, if that is the word, Myanmar. Jaspal Kaur Singh, a third-generation Burmese of Indian origin, now a professor in the US, remembers a large number of gurdwaras in remote northern Taunggyi during her childhood. In the last two decades, northern Myanmar has been Yunnanized—Yunnan is the southwestern Chinese province bordering Myanmar. Illegal immigration from China has been widespread since the late 1990s, following an earlier opening to tourism of the Old Burma Road connecting Myanmar and China, and the later expansion of drug trafficking and arms shipments. A million-odd Chinese have crossed into Myanmar. Lashio, a Burmese city on the Old Burma Road, now has a population of more than half Chinese.
It would be short-sighted to view such changes as inevitable, or necessarily permanent. For, a dominant Indian presence was summarily reversed some decades ago. Relations with the government could change especially easily if and when the junta falls. But neither China nor India is laying the groundwork for a positive relationship with a post-junta democratic regime.
China’s support for the junta is an obvious hurdle to friendly ties with a democratic government. But India is not being proactive either. New Delhi’s response to its fading influence has been to throw its support of Burmese democracy to the winds, and to try to match China in embracing the generals. That is a losing battle. India is congenitally incapable of deploying hard power. Too many competing power centres in the government and bureaucracy work at cross-purposes, checking and balancing each other into paralysis. Compared with a top-down approach from the relatively monolithic one-party Chinese state, there is no contest.
India’s true strength lies in projecting soft power. Unstinting support of democracy, for example, is far likelier to work in the longer run as the junta runs out of steam. India should not squander an opportunity to lay useful groundwork in this regard. Even other tools of soft power will likely work better. Bollywood, for example, has a large following in Myanmar, and the more than 100,000 Burmese refugees in India will likely embrace India over China. Trying to play China’s game against China is folly, not to mention unprincipled. It will no more work than if China tries to project only soft power against India’s tactics.
There are other theatres where a version of this Sino-Indian movie is playing out. As China and India compete, for example, for Iran’s affections, will the West’s posture remain effective? Is the competitive amorality of the sort in Myanmar inevitable? It is not, if India reaffirms its principles. And a principled approach by India might even help Myanmar’s monks. Myanmar is a movie trailer for what the 21st century will be like when it is rejigged by Chinese and Indian power. That is because Myanmar is the first place where China and India are the primary actors, and where their different styles collide.
-The Wall Street Journal
Edited excerpts. Tarun Khanna is the Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor at Harvard Business School and author of Billions of Entrepreneurs: How China and India are Reshaping Their Futures and Yours (Harvard Business School Press, 2008). Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org