Musings from afar

Why India must get Myanmar right

Besides India’s neighbourhood policy, fructification of the wider Indo-Pacific policy of India also depends on its relations with Myanmar.

 |  Musings from afar  |  4-minute read |   05-03-2020
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Apart from the high-voltage visit of US President Donald Trump, India hosted another important presidential visit last week. Myanmar President U Win Myint and Daw Cho Cho, the First Lady, paid a state visit to India during February 26-29.

This visit resulted in around 10 pacts being signed with the focus of most agreements being India-aided development projects, particularly in the conflict-torn Rakhine state.

Prez comes calling

The two nations also decided to work together to launch India’s RuPay Card in Myanmar at the earliest and explore the creation of a digital payment gateway as well as to explore a bilateral mechanism for settlement in local currency in order to boost cross border trade. Cooperation in the field of petroleum products, in refining, stockpiling, blending and retail has also been enhanced with a greater focus on generating synergies between oil and gas companies of India and Myanmar.

main_modi-and-mynmar_030520114053.jpgMyanmar President U Win Myint’s visit to India resulted in crucial pacts being signed with the focus on India-aided development projects, particularly in the conflict-torn Rakhine state. (Photo: Twitter/ @narendramodi)

In a sign that the two sides are serious about enhancing connectivity, a bus service from Manipur to Myanmar will be launched from April 7. And at a broader regional level, the two nations agreed to work together to promote principles of openness, inclusiveness, transparency, respect for international law and ASEAN centrality in the Indo-Pacific.

Clearly, there is a new momentum in India-Myanmar ties as India turns towards the Bay of Bengal to articulate a more ambitious ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy which links India to Southeast Asia more substantively, and as Myanmar becomes a more active partner in tackling insurgents along the border. It is this recognition of Myanmar as a lynchpin in India’s ‘Act East’ policy that has made New Delhi pursue several high profile infrastructure projects including the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project, which aims to connect Kolkata with the Sittwe deep-water port in Rakhine state. Though the Sittwe port is viewed by some as a response to the Chinese-funded Kyaukpyu Port, the logic of Indian footprint is much wider as New Delhi hopes for greater regional connectivity.

India and Myanmar signed a landmark defence cooperation agreement in July 2019 aimed at enhancing military training, joint surveillance, and maritime security. Myanmar has been buying defence equipment from India including diesel-electric Kilo Class submarine in 2019.

Xi’s overtures

However, India is not the only player making its move in Myanmar. As usual, China is much ahead in many dimensions.

In January, Xi Jinping became the first Chinese leader to visit Nay Pyi Taw since 2001 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. He was hoping to give a fresh impetus to China’s ties with Myanmar by giving a push to a number of stalled infrastructure projects and to further enhance economic ties between the two nations. Given Beijing’s pursuit of access to the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean, the China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) was given a renewed push during the visit with pacts signed on railways linking Southwestern China to the Indian Ocean, the Kyaukpyu deep sea-port in Rakhine, a special economic zone on the border and a new city project in Yangon.

But Myanmar has been cautious when it comes to Chinese investments. The $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam project remains stalled and even Xi’s visit couldn’t revive it as there is local opposition to this ambitious undertaking. Other projects such as the Kyaukpyu port have also been streamlined. This being an election year, Myanmar is in no hurry to relent. There is suspicion about Chinese intentions in Myanmar, given Beijing’s history of supporting ethnic armed groups on Myanmar. Though China has defended Myanmar’s handling of the Rohingya on the global stage, trust is still in short supply.

Yangon lynchpin

For India, the challenge is to ensure that a stable and economically dynamic Myanmar emerges soon, so instead of hand wringing over China’s growing clout in the country, New Delhi needs to evolve a policy response that prioritises efficient delivery of projects in a timely manner and enhancing economic and cultural connections between the two.

India’s economic engagement with Myanmar leaves much to be desired and the so-called Buddhist Circuit is yet to take off. India has strengths which China can only dream of, which need to be leveraged more effectively. India also needs to work with other like-minded countries, in particular Japan, which has a strong profile in Myanmar and is playing an important role in the peace process with ethnic groups. New Delhi and Tokyo enjoy trust in Myanmar which they should deploy to help the country develop sustainable economic infrastructure and more effective security architecture.

It is profoundly important for India to get Myanmar right. Not only does India’s neighbourhood policy depend on it, but the wider Indo-Pacific policy of India also will not be able to fructify if India’s engagement with Myanmar fails to take off.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: Why India must treat the Rohingyas with magnanimity

Writer

Harsh V Pant Harsh V Pant

The writer is Professor of International Relations at King's College London. His most recent book is India's Afghan Muddle (HarperCollins).

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