Look­ing East

With China’s grow­ing in­flu­ence in Asia, Myan­mar is strate­gi­cally too im­por­tant for In­dia to ig­nore.

Southasia - - Front page - By Rizwan Zeb

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Pakistan

© PressReader. All rights reserved.