However, despite the triumphant cheers of ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ from the media, echoing the message from the halls of power in the West, there are issues of much greater significance than slogans and abstractions; geopolitics and strategic alignment are the real interests of Washington, London, and Brussels. But of course, the Western powers are not the only interested parties in Myanmar; India and China each have major investments and future plans for the country. In this way, rather than simply a country “transitioning to democracy,” Myanmar should be understood as a strategic focal point of Asia.
Myanmar as Chinese Economic Hub
It is investment, and the political and geopolitical influence that comes with it, that is the overriding interest of China, India, and the West in Myanmar. With the shifting strategic landscape in Asia, Myanmar’s political evolution has taken on an added significance wherein the once isolated Southeast Asian nation is today quickly becoming a major continental hub.
For China, Myanmar represents access to the Indian Ocean basin, as well as a major infrastructure transit point for energy imports (among others) flowing to China’s Southwest. In January 2015, a new Chinese oil pipeline through Myanmar was opened, and with it China’s influence in the country, as well as Myanmar’s significance to China, grew immeasurably. Not only does the pipeline physically connect China’s southwestern Yunnan province to the Bay of Bengal, and consequently to the Indian Ocean, but it highlights the interconnected nature of China’s investment in both pipelines and ports. For the pipeline is not operable without the Chinese-constructed deep water port on Maday Island which, along with the nearby Chinese-funded port of Kyaukphyu, is envisioned by the government of Myanmar as a future trade hub for the region.
It is critical to note that, along with the oil pipeline beginning at Maday Island, there is a gas line from Kyaukphyu that is also bringing energy to Kunming, capital of China’s Yunnan province. The dual oil-gas nature of these pipelines indicates that Beijing views this energy infrastructure as the principal artery for energy imports into the underdeveloped southwest of China – it is Yunnan’s economic development as a gateway to Southeast Asia that is of central importance to Chinese economic and strategic planners. Additionally, there are plans for a Chinese-funded railway corridor to closely parallel the new pipelines, thereby expanding the potential of Myanmar as a gateway for China’s imports.
From the Chinese perspective, such development is essential for guaranteeing China’s continued economic growth, as well as it expanding influence in the region. Economic power projection in Southeast Asia is a cornerstone of China’s strategy for creating a sphere of influence, even if it is predominantly economic influence. But there are obstacles specific to Myanmar that Beijing must reckon with if the country is to be a linchpin of this strategy.