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Myanmar: India’s Link to ASEAN


Nizika Sorokhaibam
research intern, Cdps

The government of India, under P.V Narasimha Rao initiated the ‘Look East Policy’ in 1990s which altered New Delhi’s focus to the South-East Asian countries. With this policy, India wishes to increases her engagement and role in the regional sphere by cooperating and having cordial relations with her neighbours and other countries in the area. Thus, India narrows its focus on the security of the Indian Ocean Region and also increasing trade and economic activities with South and South-East Asian countries.

The 10 member, Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), is a community New Delhi desires to associate with strongly. Some of the areas India wants to co-operate include economics, tourism, education, human resource development, trade and development, information and technology etc. India became a Sectoral Dialogue Partner of the ASEAN in 1992, and subsequently a Dialogue Partner by 1996. This led to increased Bilateral Trade and related activities between ASEAN and India. This has opened up good number of industrial, commercial and investment opportunities. India and ASEAN have further signed Free Trade Agreements, aiming to increase trade and economic activities further in the region.

In addition to the free trade agreements, India aims to increase bilateral trade to 200 billion dollars (USD) by 2022 by signing the India–ASEAN Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is a regional trade between ASEAN and its free trade agreement nations namely India, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. This gives chance for Indian companies to enter and get access to new markets.

With India’s Look East Policy, the military ruled neighbouring country, Myanmar (Burma), is increasingly gaining more significance for India. New Delhi needed to have practical approach when engaging with Myanmar as was observed by Narasimha Rao. Myanmar joined ASEAN in 1997, thus becoming the only ASEAN member that shares border with India. This significant event increased Myanmar’s importance to India in terms of maintaining good relationship with ASEAN as well as having a good neighbour. High level visits between the two countries became very frequent.

After Rajiv Gandhi’s visit in 1987, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh became the first Indian Prime Minister in 25 years to visit Myanmar in May 2012. Realising the importance of this visit the Prime Minister set off with 25 businessmen from India to discuss trade and other projects. It was deemed a successful visit that concluded with a signing of 12 MOUs along with a 500 million dollar line of credit.

The Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea connects India with South-East Asia. India shares maritime boundaries with Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia. It is also connected to South-East Asia through a land boundary with North-East India. Being the Gateway to ASEAN, Myanmar is strategically important to India and acts as the land bridge. A number of projects have been started such as the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport project, the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway etc. These projects aim to connect India’s Landlocked North-East with South-East Asia through Myanmar. Further infrastructural developments and projects will increase connectivity between India and ASEAN and thus increase trade, economics and people-to-people linkages.

India has provided assistance to Myanmar in development of Information Technology and agriculture by building research centres and institutes. Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Videsh Ltd (ONGC) and Gas Authority of India Ltd (GAIL) from India have also invested in Myanmar’s energy sector to meet the energy necessities. However, in terms of infrastructural development, India is far behind China who is devoting on its Infrastructural Diplomacy. Lately, there has been some dissatisfaction against the Chinese and their projects in Myanmar. Chinese products have poor reception in Myanmar and are known for the poor quality. Projects such as Myitsone Dam project had to be suspended because locals felt it was not fair to them that 90% of the electricity was to be transferred to Yunan province of China. It is necessary for India to maintain cordial relations with Myanmar so that its interest in South-East Asia is not hindered by China, who is concerned with gaining access to the Indian Ocean Region.

India and Myanmar discussed about a bus service connecting Imphal in Manipur and Mandalay that would allow people to travel between the two countries. However, this proposal seems likely only when the trilateral highway is completed.

India also needs to co-operate with Myanmar for security reasons and tackling Insurgency in the Northeast region. Insurgent groups such as the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), the National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Khaplang (NSCN-K), and Meitei insurgent groups from Manipur have been operating from across the border. Myanmar being a part of the Golden Triangle – a drug and opium trafficking circuit in Asia – poses threat to India. These drugs can be smuggled in through the porous and weakly secured borders by insurgent outfits and aid them financially. New Delhi requires Naypitaw’s assistance in curbing insurgency movements. Former President Thein Sein’s ceasefire agreement with the insurgents of Myanmar, can serve as a lesson for India.

The new BJP government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi revamped ‘Look East Policy’ calling it the ‘Act East’ policy at the East Asia Summit. This shift stresses on Modi’s interest as well as the immediate need to put in action and implement previously settled agreements in motion. Prime Minister Modi attended the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN–India Summit held in Myanmar soon after he came to office in November 2014. He emphasised on the need for co-operation in health, education, human resource development and developing Information Highways, which he termed as ‘i-ways’. He also mentioned the important cultural and historical links between India and Myanmar and the need to strengthen ties along those lines. His visited highlighted the significance of Culture, Commerce and Connectivity.

India and Myanmar relationship is a multifaceted one– where there is co-operation and interaction in the bilateral, multi-lateral, regional and sub-regional level. With the Aung San Suu Kyi led National League for Democracy (NLD) in power, Myanmar is expected to lean towards India owing to Suu Kyi’s education in India as well as the stable democratic government. Closer relationship between the two governments is desired for healthy and long standing bond bilaterally as well as multi-laterally.

The India–ASEAN initiative is critical, Mekong India Economic Corridor (MIEC) is a land and sea network of infrastructure that is integral for connectivity with South-East Asia. Five countries - India, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar is part of this corridor. Apart from ASEAN membership, Myanmar is also a member of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor. These are important regional co-operation forums that India is also a part of.

The opening up of Myanmar and the transition from the grasps of the military to democracy coincides with India opening up its doors to the East. This shift is a very beneficial one that both New Delhi and Naypyitaw have to consolidate and make conscious efforts to strengthen and deepen ties. Importance of Myanmar to India is ever increasing and so is India to Myanmar.