Can New Delhi trump Beijing in ties with Myanmar?

Can New Delhi trump Beijing in ties with Myanmar?

Over the past two decades, India has sought to strengthen ties with Myanmar, which is India’s gateway to Southeast Asia, particularly in the economic sphere.

With increasing anti-China sentiments in Myanmar, similar to those in other Southeast Asian countries, India’s leaders have sensed an opportunity and have taken important initiatives in that regard.  Former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh was the first PM to visit Myanmar after a period of 25 years, and current PM Narendra Modi visited the country in connection with the East Asia and ASEAN summits.

Additionally, Mr. Modi held bilateral talks with Myanmar’s President Thein Sein and is supposed to visit Myanmar again this year. India has also assisted Myanmar in spheres like information technology, English language training, and training for Myanmar civil servants in a number of areas, such as WTO negotiations.

Still, India’s economic engagement with Myanmar is nowhere near that of China, nor other countries like Japan and Singapore. There are a number of reasons for this. First, until the 1990s India refused to engage with a non-democratic regime. However, India’s Narasimha Rao government, which initiated the Look East Policy, realized the strategic and economic relevance of Myanmar in the context of India’s ties with ASEAN Countries.

Additionally, India’s inability to deliver on important infrastructural projects like the Kaladan multi-nodal project and the three-nation highway between India, Myanmar, and Thailand, also contributed to its lack of economic ties with Myanmar. Even India’s physical connectivity with Myanmar is poor. While there are two border points, there is only one direct flight between the two countries. China, however, has been able to integrate Yunnan with Myanmar and has constructed a gas pipeline.

Border disputes strain the relationship?

Relations seem to be improving, but India’s attack on a militant camp on the Myanmar border and some statements by India’s Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, claiming that India received support from the Myanmar army, strained political ties. India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval immediately went to Myanmar to discuss both with President Sein, the commander in chief and foreign minister, resulting in a decision to initiate joint border patrols.

Only recently, both sides reaffirmed their commitment to military cooperation during a number of high-level visits. Additionally, Myanmar’s Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin recently visited India and, along with his Indian counterpart, Sushma Swaraj, chaired a Joint Consultative Commission on July 15.

This was followed by a visit to India by Chief of Myanmar’s Defence Forces, U Min Aung Hlaing, who met with Prime Minister Modi. The former also met India’s three service chiefs in the context of greater security cooperation and coordination against Northeastern insurgents.

A number of important steps have already been taken in the direction of security cooperation between both countries. In 2010, both countries signed a pact, where Myanmar assured India that it will provide assistance in curbing militancy arising from the Northeast. Additionally, Former army Chief General Bikram Singh visited Myanmar in 2013 and met with President Sein and his own counterpart to discuss the possibility of military cooperation. In March 2014, both sides signed an MOU for security cooperation and coordinated patrols on the border.

While strong strategic and economic ties with Myanmar are a necessity for India, the former is wary of China’s hegemonic ties. India, while providing full support, must be careful not to act in a patronizing manner towards Myanmar and to move quickly on its promises.

About Author

Tridivesh Maini

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, New Delhi. Maini was an Asia Society India-Pakistan Regional Young Leaders Initiative (IPRYLI) Fellow (2013-2014). He has worked earlier with The Indian Express (New Delhi), The Institute of South Asian Studies (Singapore) and The Reliance Group of Industries (New Delhi). He is a regular contributor for a number of publications including The Global Times (Beijing), The Hindu and The Diplomat.