Myanmar’s geo-strategic location, as situated at the tri-junction of South Asia, South-east Asia and East Asia, enhances its strategic relevance to India. Myanmar also occupies a pivotal position in the strategies of China, Bangladesh and ASEAN countries. As Myanmar provides an alternative route through the sea to landlocked and under-developed North-eastern states, India is keen on furthering its bilateral relations with its neighbour. China’s increasing influence in Myanmar pose a potential security challenge to India which cannot be taken lightly. Myanmar’s hydropower and hydro-carbon potential have invited the attention and investment of various countries which enhances Indian prospects of entering into joint venture with foreign companies. Moreover investment in both the sectors is crucial for India’s increasing demand for energy security. India’s desire and efforts to expand its outreach to South-east Asian nations embedded in the construction of Trans-Asian Highway and Trans-Asian Rail Network will remain unfulfilled without taking Myanmar into the loop. Myanmar also holds the key to the ongoing insurgency in the North-east particularly Manipur and Nagaland. Several insurgents are believed to be operating from safe havens in the western provinces of Myanmar.
China already has a compliant Pakistan in India’s west and a China compliant Myanmar acting such as Pakistan will add to more problems on India’s Eastern front. Chinese plans to construct roads through Yunan and Myanmar will give China easy access to the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean which is considered by India as mare nostrum (our sea). These plans are being seen with suspicion in the Indian strategic circle. A road network will provide China an alternative route to the Strait of Malacca, where Indian Navy has a strong foothold. Eighty per cent of Chinese energy supply depends on the Strait of Malacca. If China’s rising economic and strategic stakes are not balanced in Myanmar, New Delhi will be left with little or no choice. Taking a cue from Chinese aggressiveness in seizing available opportunities, India has adopted a pragmatic and realist approach towards Myanmar. India is not only eyeing the huge offshore gas fields but also investing in infrastructure development including the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project Myanmar. There exists great potential and the sky is the limit when it comes to promoting bilateral trade. However compared to China, Indian share is negligible. Even in the bilateral trade between India and Myanmar trade balance has always remained in Myanmar’s favour.
Even though Myanmar is a signatory to Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and also to the Nuclear Weapons Free Southeast Asia, it is allegedly developing its own nuclear weapons. As of now, nothing concrete can be said about its nuclear designs. However, there is no second opinion about Chinese assistance behind Pakistani and North Korean nuclear weapons. India cannot afford to have one more nuclear power in its vicinity, even if its possibility is slim. Therefore, India needs greater involvement in Myanmar through bilateral and multi-lateral frameworks including ASEAN, Mekong-Ganga Cooperation and BIMSTEC. Indo-Myanmar relations have witnessed ups and downs passing through various phases from “close cooperation” through “idealism” and “realism.” However the current situation appears promising for both the countries. Bilateral trade is improving with the current figures crossing one billion dollar mark. Despite the fact that trade balance remains in Myanmar’s favour, India has enough sectors to invest including infrastructure, hydropower, hydrocarbons, ICT, BT, jewellery, pharmaceuticals and cooperation in the field of HRD.
Counter-insurgency cooperation and border management are two important areas where India needs Myanmar on its side. It the case of Myanmar, it is always the military junta which choses to engage with a foreign country and not the other way round. Fortunately this time Myanmar has extended its hand towards India to enhance security cooperation. The high level interactions from both sides have significantly increased. There are several problems that India has been witnessing from across the border. Steps are being taken to address the common problems faced by both the countries including demarcating the 1643 km shared border. The cross-border smuggling of narcotics, small arms and ammunitions are also high on the agenda of both the countries. The scope for enhancing military cooperation is tremendous. India has not only given military aid to Myanmar in the past but also training to its security personnel. Both countries have conducted joint counter-insurgency operations to nail down insurgents.
India’s North-eastern states share 98 per-cent of their border with the neighbouring countries i.e. international borders and have only a two per-cent linkage with mainland India. This unique feature makes the region more vulnerable not only in terms of security, but also access to basic amenities. The rate of growth in the North-eastern states is far slower than the national average. India through its Look East Policy has attempted to target these problems including; insurgency and under-development in the North-east and greater connectivity with South-east Asian nations, obviously through Myanmar.
Myanmar is also aware of the increasing Chinese influence and wants to avoid over-reliance on China by diversifying its defence procurements and other investments in infrastructure of high relevance. The military junta has cautiously adopted a policy which is rooted in the feeling of nationalism and identity which India needs to understand, especially the domestic determinants of Myanmar’s policy towards rest of the world in general and its neighbours in particular. India should also focus on the geo-political and politico-military realities and how they influence policies in Myanmar. For instance, the generals in Myanmar have resorted to periodic actions against insurgent groups on its western peripheries because Myanmar pays more attention to its border with China. Needless to mention that utmost attention is paid to the areas inhabiting people of Burman/Bamah race who constitute 69 per cent of the population. According to the UN Myanmar is the third biggest contributor of refugees after Afghanistan and Iraq. The refugee problem has affected Myanmar-Thailand relations and may affect relations with other Southeast Asian nations.
India also needs to be prompt in its approach while seizing the investment opportunities in Myanmar. There exist enormous opportunities but the first comers will get the better deal. Strategically Myanmar has been and will remain important for India as it holds key to stability in the North-east, economic and trade linkages with the South-east Asian markets and stemming China’s increasing influence in the region.
Dr Rajesh Kapoor is an Associate Fellow at CLAWS
(Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views either of the Editorial Committee or the Centre for Land Warfare Studies).