to Europe via a new Burma road By David Fullbrook
KUNMING, China - Pipe dreams of a cheaper, shorter and safer trade route
between China and Europe through Myanmar to the Bay of Bengal are once again
edging onto official agendas. High oil prices, competitive advantages and
strategic imperatives are set to midwife this route that might have painful
implications for Southeast Asia's ports and shipping.
Driving a modern transport network through Myanmar from Yunnan province
following an age-old trade route to the sea should cut shipping bills
significantly by saving a week or more on shipping time from China to key
European markets. Yunnan, situated in the southwest corner of China, borders
Tibet, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam.
It would also ease fears of disruption to Middle East oil supplies should
terrorists wreak havoc on Southeast Asia's pirate-infested Malacca Strait, the
waterway through which most of Northeast Asia's fuel and goods pass.
Bhamo, an old port far up the Irrawaddy River about 12 hours from the Chinese
border, is the likely linchpin where goods will switch between Chinese trucks
or trains and riverine ships ferrying goods along the Irrawaddy. The river,
Myanmar's most important commercial waterway, flows 2,170 kilometers across the
center of the country, and empties into the Bay of Bengal.
"Earlier, there were talks about a multi-modal transport route through Yunnan
to Bhamo and onwards by river. It was then postponed. But now interest is
reviving," said Professor Wang Chung Lee, director of the Yunnan Academy of
Social Sciences (YASS). "It's the attitude of the Myanmar government. Now they
agree to have discussions, previously they refused," he told Asia Times Online.
This route could open within a few years if China gets investment approval from
Myanmar. Preparations appear to be under way. Traders report that Chinese
engineers have been surveying Bhamo port, which needs modernizing and expanding
in order to handle a sharp increase in trade that more China traffic would
A Chinese railway might later bypass Bhamo, running to the Myanmar railhead at
Lashio, the terminus of the railroad line from Mandalay made famous during
World War II as the starting point of the Burma Road. But for now, cost, time
and the challenges of rebuilding the poorly maintained railway between Lashio
and Mandalay count against it. "At present we are yet to discuss investment in
the railway. The focus is on the multi-modal road and river transport," said
Meanwhile, Chinese construction crews are building a railway from Kunming, the
capital of Yunnan, southwest to Mangshi, the capital of Dehong Dai. People in
China's Ruili - a busy cosmopolitan border town astride roads to Bhamo, 80
kilometers west, and Lashio - expect the railway to arrive from Mangshi
within a few years. That will leave the Chinese and Myanmar railways
only 145km apart.
If the Bhamo river-road nexus proves a success, the case for pipelines through
Myanmar, complementing those from Central Asia to China's booming east coast,
will be strong. "There are rumors of all kinds, but there are no clear plans.
It is reasonable. China's need for oil is great and urgent. Any pipeline, any
route would be beneficial," said Wang. An idea tried and tested. In Yunnan's
Baoshan, villagers curiously call water pipes "oil water pipes". A few rusting
remnants of the first pipeline they saw, one laid by the allies in World War II
from Kolkata to Kunming, still litter Yunnan and Myanmar.
And not just China's oil, but Japan's and Korea's too could conceivably flow
through pipelines from Myanmar's coast via China, earning Beijing a pretty yuan
or two in pipeline fees. Then again, Beijing might well waive such fees in
order to burnish an image as the friendly Big Brother.
Such an alternative oil and freight route could cause traffic to slow, fall
even, at key Oriental ports, including Malaysia's Johore Bharu, Singapore and
even those dotting China's Pearl River Delta. It would almost certainly snuff
out talk of a link across Thailand's Isthmus of Kra.
Of course there are a few potentially nasty potholes. Myanmar rebels could
threaten attacks. However, their threat is diminishing as they continue
splintering into obscurity while others succumb to payoffs from Myanmar's
junta. Trickier is getting the generals to sign and stick to a deal in deed as
well as in letter. "More important is the agreement to facilitate transit
shipment of goods," said Wang, head of the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences.
But the changing strategic situation, which sees China's economic and military
prowess growing while the junta fears an Anglo-American invasion, makes for
ever-warmer relations between Beijing and Yangon.
Myanmar is not the only trade route China hopes to revitalize. It wants a
railway south from Jinghong in southern Yunnan through Laos to Thailand's
deepsea port at Laem Chabang, near Bangkok. Furthering its cause are United
Nations efforts to fill gaps in the Eurasian railways and Association of
Southeast Asian Nations' (ASEAN's) talk of a Kunming-Singapore railway. China
is also helping build a second road through Nepal to India while repairing the
existing one, and nudging Kathmandu to clear the way for a third. Such routes
will receive a fillip when the Lhasa railway, now under construction, opens
later this decade.
Taken together China has not made such strenuous efforts to open trade since
Ming Dynasty Admiral Cheng Ho led huge fleets west to India and East Africa 600
years ago. Locally, however, Yunnan has long looked south. "Historically,
Yunnan has closer transport and economic links with neighboring countries than
with eastern China," said Wang.
In the 19th century, when the British and others were barging their way into
hermit China, Yunnan's Tengchong - where government offices now occupy the
sturdy former British consulate - Mangshi and Simao hosted some of the earliest
customs offices in China, overseeing trade along the southern Silk Road. "It
was because of these trading activities that it was possible to develop this
route into a very strategic road, the Burma Road, during the Second World War,"
Such was the growing volume of trade that the British proposed a railway
between Kunming and India at the beginning of the 20th century. Other proposals
followed, but the opening of the Sino-French railway between Hanoi and Kunming
a few years later delayed, but did not eliminate, the imperative. "We are now
solving a historical problem," said Wang.
Indeed, prior to the founding of the People's Republic of China, the fastest
and the safest route between Kunming and Shanghai lay via Hanoi and then Hong
Kong, because the transportation system was so poor.. And despite age-old
caravan routes, it was still quicker to reach Lhasa via British India.
Yunnan's trade, not surprisingly, is once again booming, with its neighbors
benefiting from economic reforms that began in 1978. In 1998, China-Myanmar
trade totaled US$580 million, of which $310 million originated or moved via
Yunnan. Four years later, the figures stood at $862 million of which $410
million was via Yunnan, rising to $493 million in 2003.
Myanmar is Yunnan's biggest trade partner, accounting for a fifth of its $2.5
billion international trade, followed by Hong Kong, Japan and the United
States. Trade with Laos and Vietnam is also rising fast, with the latter seen
surpassing Myanmar within a few years.
The prospective benefits of better transport links have not gone unnoticed in
Kunming. "Now the Yunnan government has formed a strategy for turning it into a
corridor to Southeast and South Asia. Once this dream is realized, the present
strides in trade will be nothing compared to what will happen," said Wang.
Languid ever ince World War II destroyed the commerce that made it throb with
huge steamers and barges, the Irrawaddy may well find itself chock-full again,
giving rise to scenes not dissimilar to those immortalized by a constable
serving in British-ruled Upper Burma, George Orwell.
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