With China’s growing influence in Asia, Myanmar is strategically too important for India to ignore.
Myanmar is strategically important for both India and China and undoubtedly plays a significant role in the fulfillment of their strategic visions. It is undergoing certain political developments that can have a lasting effect on its domestic and regional policies. The President’s desire to partially open up Myanmar and invite refugees to return to their country are just two examples of this development.
Myanmar is strategically located between South and Southeast Asia. The country borders Bangladesh, China, India, Laos and Thailand. It is also an Indian Ocean littoral state. Its strategic 1930 km long coastline stretches from the Bay of Bengal to the Malacca Straits.
Observers see the recent visit of the Myanmar President to India as a positive development in bilateral relations. A group of analysts is of the view that this is an interesting development in keeping with the fact that historically Myanmar has been closer to China. According to this view, such developments should be taken as a step towards more diverse and open regional policy on the part of Myanmar. The second view holds that just like in Afghanistan, New Delhi never actually discontinued its relations with Myanmar and the apparent warming up between the two countries is part of the Indian strategic vision for itself in Asia.
Myanmar and India share a 1,643 km long border along the Patkai Hills. The relations between the two countries can be divided into several phases. The first phase, largely friendly, lasted for almost 14 years (1948-1962). The military takeover of Myanmar in 1962, the resultant expulsion of Indians and Yangon’s support to China in
the 1962 Indo-china war changed the relationship. The second phase which lasted till Rajiv Gandhi’s time was one of indifference. Rajiv Gandhi’s government actively supported the pro-democracy elements in the country and during this period, New Delhi granted refugee status to thousands of citizens of Myanmar.
By the time Narasihma Rao took over, certain compulsions dictated that the relationship with Myanmar be improved and the third phase started. The critical factors contributing to this change of heart were the threat of the rising influence of China, drug trafficking and a need to counter the active insurgency in bordering Indian states. Another, and perhaps the most important factor, was the Look East policy of New Delhi, which could not have borne any fruit unless relations with Yangon improved. India’s then foreign secretary, J.N. Dixit, visited Yangon in March 1993 and a bilateral agreement to control drug trafficking and border trade was signed.
The fourth phase, which is perhaps still ongoing, started with the BJP coming to power in New Delhi. Since then, New Delhi has pursued an active engagement policy with Myanmar and many senior level visits have been exchanged between the two countries. India’s foreign secretary, K. Ragunath, visited Myanmar in February 1998. Issues such as strategic cooperation on internal security, border management and modalities to enhance border trade were discussed. India’s foreign minister, Jaswant Singh also visited Myanmar and signed a number of agreements. Added to the list was the important and landmark visit of General V.P. Malik, Chief of Indian Army Staff in 2000.
In October 2004, General Than Shwe visited India. Several agreements like setting up of cultural ex- changes, cooperation in non-traditional security issues and establishing the Tamanthi hydroelectric project in Myanmar were signed during this visit. Both sides also agreed to explore how to cooperate in various sectors such as energy, rail transportation, communications, science and technology and health. In April 2006, during Indian President APJ Abul Kalam’s visit, agreements on natural gas, satellite-based remote sensing and promotion of Buddhist studies were signed. In June 2006, India’s Foreign Secretary, Shyam Saran visited Yangon to further discuss the prospects of an India-myanmar gas pipeline project.
New Delhi is keen to get access to Myanmar’s gas reserves that are estimated to be around 90 trillion cubic feet and many Indian companies are already involved in several projects there. Although the fate of the gas project is still under discussion, New Delhi is willing to explore other innovative ideas to bring Myanmar’s gas to India.
Myanmar-india relations are steadily progressing. Trade between the two countries is on the rise and India is Myanmar’s fourth largest trading partner. New Delhi is actively involved in various infrastructural projects such as the construction of roads, highways, rail links and ports. The ‘trilateral highway’ connecting India, Myanmar and Thailand is one such high profile project. India is also providing assistance to Myanmar in improving its rail network in efforts to link New Delhi with Hanoi as part of the Mekong-ganga Cooperation (MGC).
Both countries actively support each other on the issues of crossborder insurgency and drug trafficking. In 2006, Myanmar and the Indian Army conducted a joint operation to flush out NSCN-K rebels.
In recent years, New Delhi has emerged as a major supplier of arms to Myanmar along with China, Russia and Ukraine. So far, it has supplied 105 mm guns, T-55 tanks, light helicopters, transport planes, artillery ammunition and some naval craft. However, in the days ahead, both countries want this cooperation to intensify. New Delhi is willing to upgrade the armed forces and the equipment of Myanmar, though military cooperation between both countries is stronger in the naval sector.
Myanmar’s is the most important link between India and South East Asia, thus making it strategically important for New Delhi, which is driven by realism in the realm of regional politics. Even though China is Myanmar’s strongest ally, Yangon, due to its desire to get out of its global isolation, is reaching out to other countries.
New Delhi’s biggest concern in the region is clearly China. Chinese naval presence in Myanmar is of concern to India. Furthermore, active cooperation in the exploitation of natural resources as well as the effects of Chinese presence on India’s maritime objectives make Myanmar strategically too important for India to ignore.
While there should be no doubt that Yangon-new Delhi relations are likely to improve in the days ahead, whether Myanmar would be willing to ignore China or will become another turf for active Sino-indian competition is uncertain. In a scenario where anything is possible, only time can tell! The writer is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Political Science and International Relations, University of Western Australia and a former Benjamin Meaker Visiting Professor of Politics, IAS, University of Bristol, UK. He is also a visiting scholar at Brookings Institution and is currently working on a book on the Strategic Culture of Pakistan.