Long forgotten by much of the world and dismissed as an international outcast, Myanmar’s recent tryst with democratization and its historical strategic alliance with China has added intricate layers to bilateral relations between India, China and Myanmar. Myanmar’s strategic location at the junction of South Asia and South-East Asia is geo-politically and economically significant for both India and China. Myanmar provides China’s landlocked inland provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan passage to the Indian Ocean which reduces China’s vulnerability to hostile forces blocking the Strait of Malacca, a narrow sea passage through which 80 per cent of China’s oil and gas imports currently passes.
It is clear China understood the favourable implications of having Myanmar as an ally while India’s realisation about the strategic importance of Myanmar came a little late. Myanmar is crucial to furthering India’s Look East Policy, for energy security and to contain Chinese influence over smaller states in the region. At a time when Myanmar is going through a political transition to democracy and is looking to expand its diplomatic space beyond China, India and Myanmar should reconsider the state of bilateral relations based on the evolving geo-political dynamics in the neighbourhood.
New Delhi went from pursing a neutral foreign policy towards Myanmar throughout most of Cold War era to shunning all efforts at realpolitik altogether and shifted to openly supporting Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratic opposition party by the late 1980s. India’s idealistic foreign policy did not serve anyone - Yangon grew hostile towards India and took China as an ally, military rule only got more oppressive and India faced strategic threats from being encircled on three sides by China and its zone of influence without any buffer states. By the time India realised its mistake and adopted a realist approach to foreign policy towards Myanmar in 1995, China had already consolidated its position in the country and set up military and intelligence gathering bases in Myanmar. Soon Chinese fighter jets, tanks and missiles poured into Myanmar and the army, air force and navy came to be trained by Chinese officers.
Was India’s reversal of foreign policy too little too late? If one is to access the extent of influence India has on Myanmar today by following pipeline politics, India seems to be far behind its game. India had submitted a proposal for oil and gas pipelines to be routed through the north-eastern states but lost out on the competition for pipelines to China, a $2.5 billion project which extends from Myanmar’s western coast to China’s south-western Yunnan province. But recent turn of events suggests that India can still harbour hopes of having a better standing in Myanmar.
Although India cannot expect to catch up with the kind of military presence China has in Myanmar, efforts to extend military support has been launched by New Delhi as Myanmar is now looking beyond China and Russia for military procurement. Indian military supplies are slowly trickling into the country and India has signed a $29.24 million deal to sell Indian-developed sonar equipment to Myanmar on January 16, 2013. India has also agreed to Myanmar’s request for assistance in building offshore patrol vehicles (OPVs) and has green lighted a request to double the number of vacancies for training Myanmarese Navy officers and sailors from the current quota of 50. India will also train Myanmarese pilots to fly Russian-built Mi-35 helicopters.
In spite of losing out on pipeline projects and not having as much of an influence over the country as China does, there are still chances of India making its presence felt in Myanmar at a time when the country is looking to reduce its dependence on China. When the pipeline project was launched in 2009, Myanmar was still ruled by the military junta and acted as a de facto client state to China. This is not the case today. Recent clashes at pipeline site shows rising anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar. On January 27th 2014, police detained more than 20 Burmese pipeline workers after a feud with Chinese workers at a construction site, ending with an oil-storage facility and another building engulfed in flames. A Burmese resident of a nearby town told the newspaper Irrawaddy: “It is unjust that the Chinese are the ones who started the problem but none of them got arrested.” Rising anti-Chinese sentiment and unresolved ethnic tensions could change the dynamics of relations between China and Myanmar, which will provide an opening for India to put efforts at countering Chinese influence in the country.
Myanmar’s political transition has already shown signs of affecting the previously cosy relations between the two governments, and statistics from 2012 show a drop in Chinese FDI in Myanmar. Only when India seriously starts working on regional integration projects with Myanmar can it hope to counter Chinese authority while furthering national interests through trade and connectivity. For India’s Look East Policy to materialize on ground, the northeastern states of India needs to have direct connectivity with Myanmar and improved border infrastructure. The India-Myanmar border is undeveloped in contrast to Myanmar’s border with China.
Indian Ambassador to Myanmar Gautam Mukhopadhaya during his visit to Mizoram on February 26th 2014, requested the Mizoram government to take all steps to boost trade with Myanmar. Mukhopadhaya said that Mizoram has the potential to serve the needs of Myanmar in education, health, power supply and industries sectors, and suggested Mizoram exporters may try exporting goods which have excellent market value in Myanmar. “Areas that we see of interest to private companies are power and cement,” he said. Officials, traders and businessmen requested Mukhopadhaya to make the Zokhawthar border trade centre in western Mizoram operational at the earliest. Mukhopadhaya said he hoped to see further progress on the Kaladan multi-modal transit transport project being developed with Indian investment to ferry goods between northeast India and abroad via Myanmar.
The looming prospect of closer ties between India and Myanmar is seen as a strategic threat by China, and apart from engaging Myanmar through military and economic cooperation, Beijing has been actively employing soft power diplomacy which has become necessary now that the country is toying with the idea of democracy. Recently, the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar and China-Myanmar Friendship Association jointly donated 120 million Kyats ($122,448) to a charity school in Yangon where more than 1700 students are enrolled, most of whom are orphans and from poor families across Myanmar. In February this year, the Red Cross Society of China dispatched humanitarian aid worth 5 million Yuan ($820,000) to help 10,000 displaced families in the Kachin state in northern Myanmar. India should play a more pro-active role if it hopes to counter Chinese authority in Myanmar.
New Delhi’s relationship with Naypyidaw has come a long way since President Thein Sein’s government came to power in 2011. While Myanmar seeks allies other than China to help balance its dependence on Beijing for economic cooperation and military procurement, it is not going to risk completely shunning China for new friends. Regardless of whether Myanmar successfully become a democracy or goes back to military rule, the country’s natural resources and strategic location remains indispensable for both India and China. As of now, China is leading in the balance of power game, thanks to its recent engagement with Myanmar. One can only wait and watch if India and China can create a win-win situation for themselves over its interests in Myanmar or end up playing a zero-sum game!