Asia’s New Great Game

China and India are both hungry for Burma’s vast natural riches. But will Burma’s people pay the price or can this Southeast Asian backwater finally enter the 21st century?

THANT MYINT-U

Slide Show: Asia’s New Silk Road

When geography changes — as when the Suez Canal joined Europe to the Indian Ocean, or when the railroads transformed the American West and the Russian East — old patterns of contact disappear and new ones take hold, turning strangers into neighbors and transforming backwaters into zones of new strategic significance. Entire groups decline or vanish; others rise in importance.

Over these next few years, Asia’s geography will see a fundamental reorientation, bringing China and India together as never before across what was once a vast and neglected frontier stretching over a thousand miles from Kolkata to the Yangtze River basin. And Burma, long seen in Western policy circles as little more than an intractable human rights conundrum, may soon sit astride one of the world’s newest and most strategically significant crossroads. Mammoth infrastructure projects are taming a once inhospitable landscape. More importantly, Burma and adjacent areas, which had long acted as a barrier between the two ancient civilizations, are reaching demographic and environmental as well as political watersheds. Ancient barriers are being broken, and the map of Asia is being redone.

For millennia, India and China have been separated by near impenetrable jungle, deadly malaria, and fearsome animals, as well as the Himalayas and the high wastelands of the Tibetan plateau. They have taken shape as entirely distinct civilizations, strikingly dissimilar in race, language, and customs. To reach India from China or vice versa, monks, missionaries, traders, and diplomats had to travel by camel and horse thousands of miles across the oasis towns and deserts of Central Asia and Afghanistan, or by ship over the Bay of Bengal and then through the Strait of Malacca to the South China Sea.  

But as global economic power shifts to the East, the configuration of the East is changing, too. The continent’s last great frontier is disappearing, and Asia will soon be woven together as never before.

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