Aerial view of Kunming skyline in fog with empty streets. Photo: iStock
Aerial view of Kunming skyline in fog with empty streets. Photo: iStock

In an essay published in 1943 as World War II was raging on, Owen Lattimore, a renowned American scholar of East Asia, wrote: “Yunnan is the pivot on which events in Southeast Asia are likely to turn after the war.”

Lattimore believed that Yunnan “as the province of China bordering on Burma and Indochina” was becoming the new center of attraction in China thanks to the relocation of industrial production moving inland away from coastal towns, the construction of the Burma Road, which “did far more than open a way into China from abroad” and “completely changed the structure of production and distribution within Yunnan,” and the “shifting of surplus population from eastern China to the underpopulated southwest.”

Lattimore made a strong point about the rising importance of Yunnan and its provincial capital Kunming for wartime China and its postwar prospects. However, his time was still the era of empire and colonialism. Lattimore believed that a “first push” was needed “to set events to turning about the pivot of Yunnan,” and this push, according to him, was not to come from the Chinese themselves, but from “us, the countries which for a hundred years have been accustomed to thinking of ourselves as the Great Powers.”

Today, exactly 75 years after Lattimore published his essay, Yunnan is back in the spotlight as China’s gateway to Southeast Asia. This is a world starkly different from Lattimore’s time. Southeast Asia is no more under colonial rule; it is home to growing democracies and flourishing economies. China itself is a great power, and that “push” needed to turn Yunnan into a pivot of Southeast Asia is coming today from the expanding cooperation between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors.

Lattimore was speculating about the possible structure of postwar Asia; what we are witnessing today is a new economic structure in this part of the world, energized through trade, investment and the impetus brought by the Belt and Road Initiative. The province of Yunnan has a key position in this emerging structure.

Visitors landing in Kunming’s Changshui Airport are often surprised by the resemblance of the place they have arrived in to Southeast Asian locations, particularly in terms of climate and flora. Yunnan is indeed very close to Southeast Asia, and it has land borders totaling 4,000 kilometers in length with three ASEAN member countries, namely Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam.

While geographical proximity is certainly an advantage, the Chinese government is actively capitalizing on it by increasing connectivities between Yunnan and neighboring countries, in order to turn its southern province into a gateway to a larger economic hinterland.

The first kind of connectivity in this respect relates to economic integration initiatives that bring Yunnan province together with countries in not only Southeast Asia but also South Asia. Yunnan has a special place in the Belt and Road Initiative, which is emphasized through its part in integration projects such as the Yangtze River Economic Belt, BCIM (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar) Economic Corridor, China-Indochina Peninsula Corridor and the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Framework.

In other words, China is expanding cooperation toward both South Asia and the lower Mekong countries within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative, and Yunnan is perfectly placed to serve as a hub for this emerging network.

The second kind of connectivity, which in fact is required to vitalize the first one, is related to improvement of transport infrastructure. High-speed rail lines between Kunming and Shanghai, as well as Yunnan and Guangxi, commenced operation in December 2016. Cargo trains departing from Kunming and passing from Chengdu are making the trip all the way to Eastern Europe and terminating in the Polish town of Lodz.

But the real game changer will be the Pan-Asia Railway Network, which would connect China with Singapore through different routes, one passing through Vietnam and Cambodia, another through Laos and the third one through Myanmar. The Vietnam-Cambodia segment is already completed, work is in progress on the Laos segment, and ground has recently been broken in Myanmar. Once completed, which the Chinese hope to accomplish by the end of 2020, this rail system will also connect the overland routes of the Belt and Road Initiatives with the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road.

Another kind of connectivity between Yunnan and Southeast Asia is established through business-to-business connections. The annual China-South Asia Expo takes place in Kunming, and this year’s event brought together more than 3,800 companies from 87 countries and regions, while Southeast Asian countries had their own special pavilion.

Overseas Chinese entrepreneurs in Southeast Asian countries are especially active in establishing business links between their countries of citizenship and residence and the province of Yunnan. This is only natural, as Yunnan is one of the five provinces in China that overseas Chinese living in Southeast Asia originate from. In other words, it is a case of ancestral links supporting business links.

Yunnan’s increasing engagement with Southeast Asia has the potential to bring a new dimension, perhaps a real success story to the entire Belt and Road narrative, and generate mutual benefits for China and Southeast Asian countries. There are, however, questions that will have to be answered in the future.

For instance, as territorial disputes in the South China Sea continue to be a source of tension between China and the Southeast Asian countries, is it possible that political conflict could derail economic initiatives and undermine the whole project? Or perhaps, can we expect the dynamics to work in the opposite direction? Is it possible that increasing economic cooperation and mutual benefits in the region could lead to greater motivation for countries to solve their political differences in a more peaceful way? There is no reason not to be optimistic here.

Yunnan is turning into a frontier in China’s new round of opening up, which is taking shape through the Belt and Road Initiative. It is once again becoming China’s “pivot of Southeast Asia,” this time, however, through home-grown, economy-oriented and profoundly different dynamics compared with 75 years ago.

Altay Atli

Dr Altay Atlı is an Istanbul-based academic, writer and consultant specializing in international political economy and international relations. Information on his work can be found in his personal web site:

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