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The Burma Road serves as the gateway between Myanmar and the rising empire on its border. It is the central trade route feeding China’s voracious appetite for the resources — including energy, natural resources and food — it desperately needs to sustain its population of 1 billion people. Here China’s pervasive presence, its sophisticated exertion of soft power, is evident at every turn.

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Along the Burma Road, China navigates path to energy security

From Mandalay to Kunming, the central artery between Burma and China reflects an evolving economic and political relationship.

MANDALAY, Myanmar — There’s only one land route from here to China: via a pocked, crowded, dusty road that snakes its way over misty hills and down through treacherous river valleys before finally reaching Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province.
Born of wartime desperation, the fabled “Burma Road” was constructed in 1937 by some 200,000 Chinese and local laborers using shovels and, when necessary, their bare hands. Two thousand died in the process.

“By 1938, where there had only been dirt tracks and jungle ravines, there was now a road capable of handling military lorries,” writes Thant Myint-U in his book, Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia. Britain thought the resulting convoys of materiel would allow the Chinese Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek to stave off Emperor Hirohito’s forces while the Allies organized the defense of Burma.

It was all for naught; a few months after bombing Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces swept north from Thailand and cut this vital link between the Chinese armies and the Allies.

But the Burma Road was not built in vain. The route serves as the gateway between Burma, also known as Myanmar, and the rising empire on its border. It is the central trade route between China’s voracious appetites for resources such as minerals, natural gas, water and food that it desperately needs to sustain its population of 1 billion people. Here China’s pervasive presence, its sophisticated exertion of soft power, is evident at every turn.

From the restaurants catering to Chinese traders to the trucks that bring raw materials out and cheap manufactured goods in, the signs of Chinese influence are everywhere along the Burma Road.

“The Chinese play by the rules. When the rules change, so do they.”
~David Steinberg, Georgetown University professor

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.

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.”

In this light, China’s enormous investments in Burmese energy development make sense. Various “state-owned enterprises” are spending $2.5 billion on a pipeline to deliver oil and gas from the