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.
At the heart of the changes is Burma. Burma is not a small country; it is as big in size as France and Britain combined, but its population of 60 million is tiny compared with the 2.5 billion combined populations of its two massive neighbors. It is the missing link between China and India.
It is an unlikely 21st-century nexus. Burma is one of the world's poorest countries, wracked by a series of seemingly unending armed conflicts, and ruled for nearly five decades by one military or military-dominated regime after another. In 1988, following the brutal suppression of a pro-democracy uprising, a new junta took power, agreeing to cease fires with former communist and ethnic insurgents and seeking to unwind years of self-imposed isolation. But its repressive policies soon led to Western sanctions and this, together with growing corruption and continued mismanagement, meant that any hope of even economic improvement quickly dimmed.
By the mid-1990s the view of Burma in the West became fairly set -- a timeless backwater, brutal and bankrupt, the realm of juntas and drug lords, as well as courageous pro-democracy activists, led by Aung San Suu Kyi. A place worthy of humanitarian attention, but unconnected to the much bigger story of Asia's global rise. China, however, viewed things differently. Where the West saw a problem and offered mainly platitudes and a little aid, China recognized an opportunity and began changing facts on the ground.