After a month in Kunming and reading about Yunnan province in the months leading up to our move, I’ve come to some realizations about the place that i wanted to share with everyone. It’s of course influenced by my time at Stratfor as well as reading several books about this area of China and talking to people here. Obviously, this isn’t academic writing, but I still feel compelled to cite my sources a bit just to give credit where it’s due.
Right now I’m reading From Mandalay to Momien. It’s a report written by a British naturalist who accompanied a British exploration force seeking out overland trade routes from Burma to China via its southern Yunnan province in 1868. This is the physical area that we’re talking about here.
I’ve learned two major things from this book. First. that, historically, Yunnan province has had good access to the rest of the world via trade along the Irawaddy River in Myanmar. Second, over the centuries, Yunnan has passed in and out of Imperial Chinese rule. During periods of Chinese rule, authorities tend to block Yunnan’s access to Burma. However, Yunnan has been under control of several Islamic kingdoms and during those bouts of autonomy, local rulers sought out access to international trade. In 1868, when the British expedition set off up the Irrawaddy from Mandalay, southern Yunnan had recently fallen out of Chinese control and was an Islamic kingdom.
The greater context of this expedition was Britain and the west’s ongoing struggle with Beijing in the 19th century to increase foreign access to the interior of China. Britain and other western powers were limited to a few coastal concessions along the Pacific coast where they could buy spices, raw materials and other goods from merchants. But ever the businessmen, the British were interested in increasing their access to these products in order to cut out the inflated costs the middlemen charged in the coastal concessions. Interior China also generated excitement as a marketplace for British sellers. Expeditions like the one in 1868 to southern Yunnan province were an attempt to find a profitable “back-door” to China through which the British could access inland commodities directly.
It’s no surprise that the British had Yunnan in their sights. Yunnan is China’s geographic extension into Southeast Asia. As Robert Kaplan points out in Revenge of Geography, Yunnan and and its capital, Kunming, offer China a gateway to southeast Asia and vice-versa. Yunnan is either the source of or contributes significant tributaries to the Yangtze River, which flows onto Shanghai; the Mekong River, which flows on through or borders Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The Pearl and Red rivers start in Yunnan and form two of Vietnam’s major rivers. Finally, several of Yunnan’s western rivers flow through the mountains to the Irawaddy: Myanmar’s core transportation artery. One of those rivers, the Taping, was the principal route that our 19th century British explorers followed to traverse the mountainous border between Burma and southern China. Seventy years later, American, British and local forces built a road approximately following the Taping to supply Chiang Kai Shek's Chinese nationalist army in opposition to the Japanese, who had cut off China's maritime access during WWII. That historical example is evidence that Yunnan is China’s second best entry port behind the Pacific Ocean. It’s a far, far distant second place, but nonetheless an option.
All of the river routes connecting landlocked Yunnan to ports along the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean naturally draw Yunnanese business interests to the south rather than north towards Beijing. Granted, many of these rivers are too small to carry significant traffic in Yunnan, but they at least cut a path through the mountains that offer natural road and rail routes. Once the Taping river valley hits the Irawaddy in northern Myanmar, for example, moving goods by boat to the rest of the world via the Indian Ocean becomes much more viable - hypothetically, at least. The political situation in Myanmar and its port facilities still make it difficult, but China is actively trying to improve both. Passable segments of the Irawaddy river are about 500 miles from Kunming whereas the major southern Chinese port of Guangzhou is about 900 miles away. Via the Yangtze, Shanghai is over 1500 miles away, but due to dams it’s not a viable river for shipping goods from Yunnan. Yunnan’s geographical estrangement from the rest of China and its natural proximity to southeast Asia has historically presented a political problem for Beijing.
Ethnic Han Chinese have historically not made up the majority of Yunnan’s population. Yunnan’s distance from China’s more traditional east coast core means that it’s not imperative that China hold Yunnan, but given Yunnan’s geographic position, it certainly helps to have it.
Yunnan claims to have the most minority groups of any province in China. In today’s politically correct world, embracing “minority groups” is synonymous with political openness and compassion. China certainly trumps up its tolerance of minority groups in Yunnan; for example, there’s a whole theme park dedicated to Yunnan’s minority groups in Kunming, but it’s the equivalent of saying that Disney embraces Alpine culture because they feature The Matterhorn at their theme park. Chinese tolerance of minority groups in Yunnan goes as far as the government is able to exploit them for the sake of tourism. As history shows, those same minority groups (many of which are Muslim) have challenged China’s control over Yunnan for centuries. As far as Beijing is concerned, these groups are much safer as exhibits than actual, functioning cultures.
Nowadays, Chinese culture dominates in Yunnan and that’s the result of intentional “sinofication” by encouraging members of China’s dominant Han ethnicity to move to Yunnan. This is extremely evident in the capital, Kunming.
A good metric to measure China’s confidence in its control over Yunnan will be its willingness to build infrastructure linking Yunnan with southeast Asia. One hundred years ago, Beijing’s control over Yunnan was tenuous and external links via British controlled Burma and French controlled Indochina helped indigenous groups in Yunnan maintain a level of autonomy by giving them access to foreign patrons who were more than happy to challenge China. But as Yunnan has become more Han (and thus more mainstream Chinese) and the foreign powers to the south of China have weakened since the end of colonialism, Beijing will be more willing to expand its connections to southeast Asia via Yunnan. Now, the back-door is an opportunity rather than a liability.
It’s become important to China to link Yunnan with southeast Asia. As China’s east coast has grown immensely over the past decade, inflation and competition over labor is driving prices up. China is feverishly trying to develop interior provinces like Yunnan to alleviate the pressure on the East Coast to produce. But Yunnan’s land-locked geography means that delivering goods to ports on China’s east coast is expensive. Yunnan is only marginally closer to Indian Ocean ports like Yangon in Myanmar, but Yunnan’s access to so many major southeast Asian river networks means that there is a great potential for cheaper routes to the south.
Additionally, the United States and China are very different geographically. One of the main differences is the US’s direct access to two of the world’s oceans, giving it direct access to Europe and Asia simultaneously. China, on the other hand, only has direct access to the Pacific Ocean. As of now, if its ships need to access the Indian Ocean, they must sail through the Strait of Malacca - a highly strategic waterway that snakes its way between Singapore and Indonesia that in a dire situation (such as war) could be blocked. However, if China can develop access to the Indian Ocean via another route, such as Yunnan province, then it can hold an insurance policy in the extreme case that it loses access to the Strait of Malacca or its Pacific Coast. It may seem far-fetched now, but it wasn’t 70 years ago.
It’s been proven time and again that China can’t “lock” its back door in Yunnan. So instead of ignoring Yunnan and allowing rivals to sneak in and out of it, China is trying to open it up for business, firmly under its own management. Now that I’m aware of the geopolitical opportunities China has in Yunnan, it will be fun to keep a watch on how it unfolds. As we travel through southern and western Yunnan, we’ll definitely keep our eye on development and see how China is building infrastructure links to the rest of southeast Asia via Yunnan.
1. Mandalay to Momien by John Anderson
2. Forgotton Kingdom by Peter Goullart
3. Revenge of Geography by Robert Kaplan
4. Pretty much all of the China and SE Asia coverage at stratfor.com