This is the second part of The Chinese-Indian New Cold War series from Andrew Korybko, looking at the region of Southeast and South Asia. Please read the previously published sections for better understanding.
- Part I – The Chinese-Indian New Cold War – Background
- Part II – The Chinese-Indian New Cold War – Southeast and South Asia
- Part III – The Chinese-Indian New Cold War – Southeast and South Asia – Part II
- Part IV – The Chinese-Indian New Cold War – Middle East and Central Asia
- Part V – The Chinese-Indian New Cold War – East Africa
The first realm of rivalry to be explored between China and India is the interconnected strategic space of Southeast and South Asia. While geopolitically separate and not yet functionally integrated with one another, India’s “Act East” policy of ASEAN engagement seeks to unite the two through valuable Japanese backing. Tokyo takes an interest in this region for both historic-imperialist and contemporary anti-Chinese ‘pivot’ reasons. The latter mainly to expand its existing heavy economic influence in Southeast Asia to political proportions in order to craft the aggressive perception that it’s surrounding/containing China in its own backyard. The geography of the Indo-Chinese Peninsula provides the perfect convergence point for Indo-Japanese interest, serving as a natural bridge for both.
Therefore, Southeast Asia, particularly the Indochinese Peninsula, is a pivot space for joint Indo-Japanese interests in extending each respective member’s influence beyond their traditional domains and into their allied neighbor’s, with the intent of laying the strategic groundwork for developing a larger “China Containment Coalition” between middle-ground states in the future. This makes the mainland ASEAN states of Southeast Asia, Greater Mekong Sub-region, the immediate centerpiece of competition between China and the Indo-Japanese Axis. It also sets the stage for demonstrating the phased transition of strategic rivalry from this part of the supercontinent to South Asia. Geopolitically, Southeast Asia connects Japan to South Asia, which was the original starting point of the Chinese-Indian New Cold War, and both collectively form the South Eurasian Rimland zone of competition between the unipolar and multipolar worlds.
Moreover, this trans-regional space can also be reconceptualized as both the northern reaches of the Indian Ocean Region and the easternmost part of Greater South Asia, explained in a previous research work of the author’s at the end of last year. It’s important the readers understand the differing, albeit complementary, strategic perspectives for how the competitive connectivity projects in Southeast-South Asia can be perceived. This allows the expands their thought horizons and uncover different significances which might otherwise have remained hidden.
It will be proven how four projects in Myanmar, for example, actually serve as the infrastructure bridges connecting these two regions and their wider thematic concepts. It could be argued that Myanmar, and Thailand, maintain a certain leverage in dealing with both blocs of powers.
Beijing boasts three major New Silk Road projects in Southeast Asia.
ASEAN Silk Road
This high-speed rail corridor plans to connect the Yunnan capital of Kunming with Singapore via Laos and Myanmar (splitting into two separate sections at this juncture), Thailand, and Malaysia.
East Coast Rail Line
Instead of the long talked-about “Thai Canal”, China has decided to build an iron bridge across the Malay Peninsula in connecting both coasts of continental Malaysia in order to get around the Strait of Malacca.
China-Myanmar Economic Corridor
Although the $20 billion rail plans for such an initiative were scrapped a few years ago by Myanmar’s military government, it’s still conceivable that the recently inaugurated Kyaukpyu-Kunming oil and gas pipelines could form the basis for a revived economic corridor sometime in the future.
Indo-Japanese Projects (a.k.a. India-Mekong Economic Corridor, IMEC)
The embodiment of India’s “Act East” policy is the construction of a highway from its Northeastern Provinces to Myanmar and Thailand, which New Delhi hopes will form a land bridge linking South Asia with ASEAN.
The website for the Transport Corridors of the Greater Mekong Region illustrates the East-West Corridor as running from the Myanmarese coastal city of Mawlamyine to the Vietnamese one of Da Nang by means of Thai and Laotian transit territory.
Alongside the abovementioned East-West Corridor, the Southern one links the Myanmarese port of Dawei with two Vietnamese ones, branching off in western Cambodia to form two distinct but complementary routes.
The below illustration is a rough depiction of the Silk and “Freedom” Corridors:
The map shows China’s objective to facilitate non-Malacca access to the Indian Ocean, whether by two wholly overland routes of the ASEAN Silk Road and prospective China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, or the peninsular Malay bridge of the East Coast Rail Line. On the other hand, India wants to achieve mainland access to ASEAN via the Trilateral Highway and corresponding cross-regional expansion of the East-West Corridor, while Japan wants to use the same alongside its Southern Corridor counterpart to enable Indian-Japanese trade through the two trans-Indochinese routes.
While both sets of projects can peacefully coexist with each other due to the lack of actual competition when America’s Lead from Behind strategy was initiated the potential for challenges coming in the Chinese initiatives is high, even if it hurts the interests of their regional allies.
The ideal situation would be the US turning a blind eye to China’s Silk Roads in the greater interest of facilitating its own partners’ projects in the shared transit states of Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos. However, a decision might be made by the permanent military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies, the Deep State, to foment, encourage, and/or guide domestic conflicts in each of these three in order to interfere with China’s plans, despite the collateral damage that could be inflicted on India and Japan’s.
Referencing the author’s Hybrid War series, each of these three states has certain identity differences which make them vulnerable to violence. Myanmar is embroiled in the world’s longest-running civil war, which is mostly active in the northern and eastern reaches of the country. Even in the event that the Bengali Muslim, Rohingya, succeed in carving out a South Asian Kosovo in Rakhine State, this could still be geographically contained and leave the centrally positioned Trilateral Highway unscathed, though inflicting tremendous damage on China’s initiative(s).
Should Myanmar’s Hybrid War heat up and interfere with India’s land-based corridor, then this could be compensated by the multimodal sea-land-sea transport of the other two cross-regional projects of the India-Mekong Economic Corridor (IMEC). Although they count the extreme vestiges of southeastern Myanmar as their terminal locations, this distant part of the country has been largely unaffected by the civil conflict and is easily defendable in any case, so it’s unlikely that even the full-on collapse of the Myanmarese state would impact on their utility.
Thailand is in a similar geostrategic position as Myanmar. Although the East-West Corridor is very promising and has the potential to more closely integrate the countries of Indo-China under a unipolar aegis. It is not indispensable and could be sacrificed by the US, if it thought the trade-off was necessary in order to sabotage China’s ASEAN Silk Road. Even though the chances of this cynical strategy are low at the moment, there’s a lot more that the US can gain by leaving Thailand alone than destabilizing it – a failed Color Revolution attempt to install a pro-American leadership to control China’s projects by proxy might fail and give way to a regionally divisive Hybrid War.
Research shows that Thailand has a very strong identity-focused movement in the Laotian northeastern part of the country popularly known as Isan. The hyperlinked study speaks more thoroughly about the specifics, but the pro-American “red shirt” opposition, formerly the ruling party prior to the latest military coup in 2014, hails from this region and enjoys significant grassroots support. If the Kingdom ever descends into civil war, then both the ASEAN Silk Road and East-West Corridor might no longer be traversable or even capable of being constructed, though the Southern Corridor would probably be safe from any conventional threats.
This landlocked country isn’t as strategic as the other two, though fulfills a much more substantial purpose for China than the Indo-Japanese Axis, as a much more stable transit alternative than Myanmar for the ASEAN Silk Road. Laos, however, is beset by a multitude of identity differences which in truth aren’t even scientifically quantifiable because of the government’s reluctance to individually classify them, instead opting to group the endemic population according to the three geographic categorizations of “lowland”, “midland”, or “upland”.
In any case, although the specifics of any potential destabilization might not be known at this moment, any developments which lead Laos in this direction would impact on China much more significantly than India-Japan because of the state’s irreplaceable role on the ASEAN Silk Road. Even in the worst-case scenario that a domestic conflict spread to the southeastern-most reaches of Laos hosting the East-West Corridor, then that project could be “sacrificed” because the Southern Corridor through Cambodia could easily take its place.