Yunnan Province : The flying gull of China's reform and opening up policy
- Part 1 -

Puyam Rakesh Singh *

Yunnan in China
Yunnan in China :: Pix - wikipedia/TUBS

China-Myanmar relations have seen high level visits, expansion of trade and economic cooperation since the late 1980s. Beijing provided political, diplomatic and military support to Myanmar amid western sanctions and arms embargo. Consequently, China's economic interests in Myanmar has expanded manifold since the 1990s. All these have close connections with the fate of Yunnan Province that shares a long border with Myanmar. With this, border areas stability is becoming crucial.

In 1999, China launched its 'Western Development Campaign' to bridge the income gap between its rich eastern coastal region and the backward western region. Moreover, Deng Xiaoping's 'southern tour' in 1992 emphasised on economic development of the coastal areas through establishment of special economic zones (SEZs) to engage with the economic giants such as Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong. That brought a huge change in the economic landscape of the coastal region.

The underlying socio-economic problems created by this uneven development are unhealthy for domestic stability. To bridge the gap, the oil and gas pipelines will feed the landlocked southwestern provinces for economic resurgence. Besides, the western part of China is attractive for labour-intensive industries. It is believed that Yunnan can attract cheaper labour force from the Southeast Asian countries and tap the market for its goods.

The map of Yunnan looks like a flying black-headed gull- a bird species that is found across the wetlands of the province. Like a bird with a sharp beak, it points towards Myanmar, Northeast India and Bangladesh. It culminated in Yunnan's 'bridgehead' strategy (qiaotoubao) to exploit its geographical advantage. In Myanmar, the commercial hub of Mandalay has seen some remarkable activities of the flying gull.

It was launched in 2009 after President Hu Jintao urged the nation to build Yunnan into a bridgehead connecting Southeast and South Asia. Actually, Yunnan shares a 4,060 km border with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam and is connected to Thailand via the Mekong River. This strategy also strengthens China's engagement with the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) forum where China is represented by Yunnan and Guangxi. It aims at enhancing connectivity with neighbouring Myanmar to get access to the Indian Ocean and other South Asian countries that have large populations and rich natural resources.

The greatest contribution that Yunnan can provide to China's economic reform and opening up is to act as the gateway to these countries by building roads and railways. Most importantly, the strategy will connect the landlocked South-western China with the ports in Myanmar. As a result, China's policy towards Myanmar is increasingly driven by the economic and strategic interests of Beijing through for greater connectivity and integration of the East and South Asian economies.

The Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture is like the head of the flying bird where Ruili City stands as the centre of border trade. A small piece of land across the Shweli (Ruili) River is the heart of Ruili's import and export trade constituting more than half of Yunnan's total volume of import and export. It is Jiegao. "Jiegao" is a Dai (Tai) word meaning 'old town'. But this enclave of just one square kilometre is Yunnan's magic gate. In late 1980s, China developed the region to expand trade relations with Myanmar as part of its economic reform and opening up. By 1991, China set up the Jiegao Border Trade Economic Zone and since then, Yunnan Province is not so far from Beijing's sight.

The Chinese know very well the importance of energy security for their economic reform and the fuel to achieve the 'Chinese dream' will come from and come through Myanmar. The vast reserves of natural gas in Myanmar and the oil terminal at Kaukphyu will supply fuel to Yunnan and neighbouring places. The energy pipelines are connected to development projects in Yunnan. They will enhance the importance of the Ruili-Muse border trade. Very soon crude oil from the Middle East will start coming to the Kyaukphyu Port to visit Yunnan. The Chinese people have a dream and they know how to fuel their dream.

In the past, Kunming was transformed into a modern city as a result of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). The Japanese campaigns in the eastern coast of China pushed a large number of wealthy people into the Southwest hinterland. Yunnan attracted many of them and attracted investments converting Kunming into a manufacturing base. After China's capital was shifted to Chongqing from Nanjing, General Sun Liren (Sun Li-jen) of the 38th Division of the Chinese Army came to Imphal from Myanmar in late May 1942.

After the Japanese successes in Southeast Asia, Yunnan became an important centre for the Allied forces operating in China, India and Myanmar. Following the Allied defeat in Myanmar, the Northeast India was the major line of communication for transporting troops and supplies to Yunnan. This period marked the birth of the "Flying Tigers" who flew over the Himalayan Hump from Assam to Yunnan and construction of the Ledo Road (Stilwell Road). (To be contd)

The wartime economy led to establishment of industries for machinery, copper, cement, iron and steel, paper, textiles and electrical products. Following this, another wave of economic change swept across Yunnan since the 1990s. Automobile industry, construction equipments, hydroelectricity machineries, tobacco, food processing, tourism, medicines, chemical, fertilizer and many other manufacturing centres have come up in Yunnan. Interestingly, the shifting of the provisional capital to Chongqing (then Chungking) was considered as the first attempt to 'Go West', also called 'Western Development Campaign'. In fact, many factories and universities were established in Yunnan and neighbouring provinces during the war.

Lately, the province has attracted foreign investment under the 'Western Development Campaign' that was launched to improve economic conditions in the hinterland of China. Under the ASEAN-China and GMS co-operation, Yunnan has seen many developmental projects including regional connectivity for making the province a regional hub of transport and trade connecting East, Southeast and South Asia.

For China, the Dali-Ruili Rail line under construction is a key project to connect with Myanmar in its "National Medium and Long Term Railway Network Plan". To realise this, China has to build a 34-kilometre long tunnel across the Gaoligong Mountains that form a sub-range of the Hengduan Mountain Range. The project is considered to be more challenging than the Qinghai-Tibet Railway that was built on permafrost. But the world has seen some great engineering feats accomplished by China and there would be more in the future.

Yunnan will host industries being transferred from eastern regions as labour cost is fast increasing there. Besides, the province will be the base of export-oriented productions for Southeast Asian countries and others. This strategy also calls for projects to establish transport infrastructures such as highways and railways connecting Yunnan to the ports in the neighbouring countries like Thailand (via Laos) and Myanmar.

To be continued...

* Puyam Rakesh Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on March 19, 2015.

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