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Myanmar and the India/China Shuffle

What are the options for India’s policy toward Myanmar?

October 18, 2015

What are the options for India’s policy toward Myanmar?

As Myanmar gets ready for elections, scheduled for November 8th, both India and China are keeping a close eye on the developments in that country.

It has been argued for a long time that Myanmar is one of the important battlegrounds between India and China. After the military coup of 1962 in Myanmar, India cut ties with the country.

New Delhi decided to establish diplomatic ties with Myanmar in the early 1990s. There were a number of reasons for this change.

First, Myanmar was crucial in the context of India’s “Look East Policy,” its policy to foster economic and strategic relations with Southeast Asian countries.

Second, India wanted to look beyond its immediate neighborhood (the SAARC Region, consisting of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka).

And last, but certainly not least, New Delhi did not want to cede further ground to Beijing in the wider Asian region.

Over the past two decades, relations between India and Myanmar have improved vastly, with a number of high-level political visits. In November 2014, Prime Minister Modi was in Myanmar in connection with the East Asia Summit.

On that occasion, Modi spoke about “Acting East,” and no longer just looking towards the East. The Look East Policy has in fact been renamed as Act East Policy. There has also been some progress on the economic front.

India lagging behind other players

Nevertheless, in terms of making significant inroads into Myanmar, India is way behind not just China, but also other countries such as Thailand and Singapore.

They have engaged in investment activities not just in infrastructure, but also in the services sector. The latter should be a wake-up call to India, since services are generally considered an area where India is at an advantage.

Connectivity between India and Myanmar is also well below what it should be. There is only one direct flight from Calcutta to Yangon, though there are plans to increase the number of flights.

Things are looking better with regard to road transportation. The India-Myanmar-Thailand Highway is scheduled to open in November, which will connect India’s North East with Thailand, through Myanmar.

For now, bilateral trade relations remain well below potential. That is due, in part, to the insufficient infrastructure at border crossings.

In contrast to India’s slow progress, China has successfully linked its Yunnan Province with Myanmar, with an oil pipeline serving as a perfect illustration of its success in better integrating the two economies.

Although that project, too, has been facing a number of challenges.

Need for more political awareness

New Delhi, for its part, has been proactive in capacity building (e.g., by offering assistance in areas such as information technology, English-language training and civil servant training.)

Beyond economic and infrastructure issues, India’s political leadership needs to be more aware of Myanmar’s concerns and use the insights learned to its own advantage. One clear example in this regard is the patronizing approach of Beijing, which has an adverse impact on the China-Myanmar relationship.

India, too, has to show more sensitivity when dealing with Myanmar. For instance, when Indian commandos crossed into Myanmar in June 2015 to launch retaliatory strikes on insurgent groups operating at the border to Sagaing Region, some Indian ministers made rather indiscreet statements, claiming that the operations were carried out with the Myanmar government’s support.

No doubt that security cooperation between both countries has increased, but statements made by the minister put the Myanmarese in an awkward situation. New Delhi had to indulge in damage control.

With regard to India’s government being interested in showing more muscle in the region, it is important to note that Myanmar’s military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing visited India in July 2015.

Both sides reinforced their commitment to closer ties, with a joint statement highlighting “India’s commitment to modernization of Myanmar’s armed forces.”

Aung San Suu Kyi’s approach towards China

These moves point to a nascent rebalancing of the old power equation, under which China has been seen as being closer to Myanmar’s military, while the democratic forces in the country have tended to tilt toward India. However, New Delhi would do well to realize that this is a dynamic situation. In particular, the attitude of Aung San Suu Kyi towards China may be changing.

Not only did she visit China and meet with President Xi Jinping in June but also mentioned in an interview with the Indian media that Myanmar has the potential to emerge as a bridge between India and China.

Even more notably, she argued that her country should not be looked at as a battleground. Suu Kyi also spoke about the need for greater transparency, especially with regard to security cooperation between India and Myanmar, referring to the operation in June.

What this foreshadows for New Delhi is that the Indian government should not expect any sudden change of attitude towards itself with the potential advent of a democratic regime in Myanmar.

What should India’s priorities in Myanmar be?

First, India needs to increase economic and security engagement with Myanmar without acting in a big-brotherly fashion.

While India’s Prime Minister has sought to infuse dynamism into the bilateral relationship, there have been occasions when India has seemed to be patronizing. New Delhi should also avoid sound byte diplomacy.

While India should seek to build its presence in Myanmar, it should not lose sight of the fact that there will be synergies with China in the context of the Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar Corridor (BCIM).

The corridor, an important component of China’s One Belt, One Road vision passes through the four countries. For long, India has been wary of the project, but now it is working on some of the important stretches of the project, realizing the benefits of being part of the project.

There is also space for Indian cooperation with other countries such as Japan, Thailand and Singapore. For instance, India and Japan can co-operate more, with regard to integrating India’s North-East with Myanmar. Finally, India should abandon the notion that Myanmar is a mere gateway to South East Asia, or just a provider of natural resources.

One of the reasons for the strains in the China-Myanmar relationship is the growing impression in Myanmar that Beijing is eyeing the country too much through the lens of natural resources.

India needs to make the most of its existing advantages. Both countries share a common heritage, with Myanmar being home to a substantial Indian origin population. The last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was also exiled to Yangon (then Rangoon).

Myanmar’s close cultural ties with India was also made abundantly clear by Aung San Suu Kyi when she spoke about her close links with India, mentioning the fact that she did her schooling there.

Even more crucially, India has had the traditional advantage of not being looked at as hegemonic or “patronizing” in its dealings with smaller countries. In short, it is important not to lose goodwill, while exploring new avenues of cooperation.


India should abandon the notion that Myanmar is a mere gateway to South East Asia.

There is an impression in Myanmar that China is eyeing the country only for natural resources.

To foster good relations with Myanmar, India needs to make the most of its existing advantages.

India has not been looked at as hegemonic or “patronizing” in its dealings with smaller countries.