Burma and China share a 1,300-mile, mountainous border and a complex history of conflict and, more recently, cooperation. Waves of Manchu invasions were repulsed in the 18th century, and relations between the countries remained highly antagonistic in the wake of World War II. Mao’s regime supported a series of communist uprisings in Burma’s eastern hinterlands, helping fuel the world’s longest running civil war, the embers of which continue to burst into occasional conflagration. In the early ’90s Chinese president Jiang Zemin put in place a series of economic reforms that led to invigorated trade and foreign policy throughout Southeast Asia.An engineer and Burmese laborers on the gas and oil pipeline that carves its way from Kunming in China to the Indian Ocean on the coast of Burma. Built and designed by the China National Petroleum Corporation, the pipeline will be 2800 km long once complete.
But Burma’s ruling military in particular benefited from Zemin’s reforms. China cut off its support of communist insurgents and signed a major trade pact with Burma. Meanwhile, Western sanctions left Burma with few options. Suffering from a crippled, mismanaged economy and foreign exchange reserves drawn to zero, Burma turned to its traditional foe.
The results have been remarkable: Not only has China offered Burma considerable diplomatic cover, using its seat on the UN Security Council to veto resolutions intended to further isolate the ruling junta. It’s also been a regular source of the arms, large and small, that have kept the generals in power.
According to the CIA World Factbook, China is also, by far, Burma’s largest trading partner, accounting for over 20 percent of its exports and 40 percent of its imports. This hardly accounts for the flourishing illegal trade in everything from teak to jade to women, who are smuggled over the border to marry China’s surplus of single young men.
But trade, legal or not, is dwarfed by China’s foreign direct investment in Burma which has grown exponentially in recent years. Excluding Singapore, China invests twice as much in Burma as it does in any other Southeast Asian country. China’s pledges now exceed $20 billion annually, which would amount to nearly 50 percent of the country’s GDP.
None of this assistance comes without strings, of course. China consumed 9.4 million barrels per day in 2011, but that figure is expected to nearly double by 2030. According to the International Energy Agency, a whopping 85 percent of that will need to be imported. The country’s appetite for minerals, natural gas, and electric power are equally voracious. Burma not only offers some of the richest oil and gas fields in Asia, but a strategic location on what some Chinese diplomats call China’s “second coast.”
China has moved aggressively to ensure future growth, developing the energy resources of neighboring countries like Burma. Those projects lie outside Mandalay, along the Burma Road.
And perhaps nowhere along the Mekong have the changes wrought by that regional hegemon been so dramatic as in Burma, the shores of which are now lined with illegal sawmills, bordellos, methamphetamine labs and casinos. The photographer Gary Knight and I were on assignment for GlobalPost, trying to find our way into Burma in order to better understand a country beginning a new chapter in democracy and inundated with sudden change.