Draw a circle, instructs Thant Myint-U in his recent book Where China Meets India, around Myanmar’s second largest city, Mandalay. Give it a radius of 700 miles, roughly the distance from Washington DC to Chicago. Within this circle lives ten percent of the world’s population, nearly all of it poor. It reaches both India’s northeastern states in the west and China’s Yunnan province in the east, both among the least developed regions of their respective countries. Far from being a fringe periphery, Thant argues, the area enclosed by this circle is poised to become a region of global importance; it is the stage of a new “Great Game,” this time not between Britain and Russia but ascendant India and China.
Myanmar has recently received a new wave of media attention. Last November, dissident leader and Nobel laureate, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, announced that her opposition party, the National League for Democracy, would participate in upcoming parliamentary elections. Only a year earlier, President Thein Sein released Suu Kyi from a 15-year house arrest without trial. Her participation in upcoming parliamentary elections has raised hopes of an end, or at least a formidable challenge, to Myanmar’s nearly five decades of military autocracy. In criticism of the regime’s history of political oppression and human rights violations, the United States and the EU have historically imposed strict sanctions upon the country. Recently, the United States has restored diplomatic relations with the nation, signalling the possibility of major progress in this relationship. Nevertheless, the path forward for relations will not be straightforward. Thant’s book explores these issues with an eye to Beijing and New Delhi, asserting that continued sanctions from the West force Myanmar’s leaders to look to the East. His criticism of Western sanctions permeates the text; he characterizes US policy toward Myanmar as a “morality play” that has failed to cause democratic reform as long as the country can freely conduct business with its eastern neighbors. He views Myanmar’s growing friendship with China as paradoxical, noting that many generals within the ruling junta had been trained in the West and spent their lives fighting Chinese-backed insurgents. Rather than forcing Myanmar’s generals to take Western demands seriously, sanctions cede to Beijing the West’s little remaining relevance in the country.
Where China Meets India is a blend of historical analysis and contemporary travelogue; Thant frames the book as a series of trips to cities in Myanmar, India, and China that provide the reader with tangible measurements of the often abstract relationships at issue. For example, he emphasizes the historical ties of India and Myanmar by noting the “light blue checked cotton lungis” and “crumbling yellowish façades” omnipresent in both Calcutta in India as well as Rangoon in Myanmar. Similarly, he introduces the reader to Ruili, a Chinese town only a few miles from Myanmar, by recalling “stick-thin men and women in rags, filthy, lying on the pavement or propped up against a wall.” Twenty years later, he revisits the town and observes the “futuristic-looking hotels” and shops selling Armani clothes and Rolex watches. The result is compelling evidence of the region’s rapid development over the past two decades. Thant’s travelogue format makes the text accessible to a reader lacking specialized knowledge of the region.
A limitation to this form of evidence emerges when Thant uses anecdotal statements to summarize larger political trends. For example, he observes that although India has shied away from developing its northeast region due to security concerns, some argue instead for greater development. He provides statements from “an acquaintance in Gauhati” and “the wife of a senior politician” in support of this view, but does not offer a measurement of its popularity within India’s political circles and among its leaders. Similarly, he argues that while Chinese foreign policy generally avoids foreign intervention, he senses a paternalistic attitude toward Myanmar within Chinese officialdom. He supports this claim only by citing an unnamed Chinese journalist who shares this appraisal of China’s goals. Thant’s incorporation of anecdotal quotations into his work does frequently enrich his arguments and provide the reader with access to a diversity of opinions. However, his attempts to challenge larger trends within Indian and Chinese policy warrant additional evidence from a wider range of sources.
Where China Meets India is an accessible overview of historical and contemporary Myanmar that sets out to prove the country’s twenty-first century relevance, and unquestionably succeeds. By depicting a Myanmar caught between Asia’s ascendant powers, Thant illuminates an underappreciated dimension of the West’s continued sanctions policy. He calls for Western engagement with an isolated nation, even one in which authoritarianism lingers under the veneer of democracy. Only then, he argues, can Myanmar not only escape the potentially exploitative influence of its neighbors,but also transition into a sustainable democracy.
Staff Writer John Corbett