Indian Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh’s May visit to Myanmar, being the first since 1987, underlines the importance India continues to attach to its Look East Policy. The fact that the visit was not combined with the BIMSTEC summit but preceded it points to its exclusive quotient. The visit outlined the fast changing pace of relationship between both countries based on the strengthening of economic ties. A comprehensive review of the multi faceted bilateral relationship between the two countries was carried out during the visit and stock taken of developments since the successful visit of Myanmar’s President U Thein to India in October 2011.
The meeting laid stress on the importance of connectivity, development cooperation, trade and investment, power and energy, culture, people to people exchanges and regional and multilateral issues. India is now the third largest export market for Myanmar, behind Thailand and China. Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in the area of services, research and education and also trade and investment have been signed as also an MOU on the establishment of border haats across the border between Myanmar and India to open commercial hubs on the line of haats opened on Indo-Bangladesh border.
As per some analysts, the Indian premier’s visit is motivated by Indian concerns over inroads made into Myanmar and the perceived need to counter Chinese influence in the region. The larger issue however remains the tremendous economic spin offs to India and Myanmar which will increase prosperity and job opportunities in the region and in the process create conditions for tackling the on-going unrest on both sides of the border.The Chinese have played their diplomacy card right by welcoming the visit. That is probably because a prosperous Myanmar would also create more opportunities for Chinese provinces on their common border.
The momentum attained in the Indo-Myanmar relation implies that both sides mutually are trying to explore varied available opportunities. In order to push larger trade, India gave positive country status to ensure flow of cost effective credit and guarantees. To assist in developing infrastructure like power, railway, roads and inland waterways India has offered around USD 800 million in credit to Myanmar which now appears to be transforming itself from an old socialist state into a modern market-oriented nation. Naypyidaw has given a green light to a huge port and industrial estate development in Dawei, for which the Italian-Thai Development Public Company Limited (ITD) is a major contractor. The first-phase contract for the 10-year project is worth an estimated USD 8.6 billion and the entire project could be worth USD 58 billion or more. The Dawei deep sea port is intended to become one end of a land bridge for freight linking India, Africa and Europe with ASEAN countries and China, replacing the longer and often pirate patrolled sea route through the Malacca Strait thus becoming a new gateway for the East. This has the potential tounite the fast growing South India region with the ASEAN thereby expanding the span of connectivity.
Trade between India and Myanmar is low and in 2010 -11 even declined from the USD 1.49 billion achieved the previous year. Both sides now hope to push up trade to USD 3 billion by 2015. In order to encourage seamless movement of goods between India and Myanmar, given its export and import records, the Kaladan Multi modal transit and transport action project for connectivity jointly being pursued by India must be pushed forward with speed. The challenges to the Look East Policy are ethnic insurgencies, poverty and underdevelopment on both sides of the border. Indian insurgent groups operate with relative impunity in the difficult jungle terrain of Myanmar which offers them suitable hideouts and bases to operate from. There are also reports that these groups receive arms from China. As per some estimates, 50 rebel groups linked with both the Isaac Muivah and Khaplang factions of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) are located in Myanmar. Promotion of trade in the region will give an economic boost to India’s North Eastern states which in turn will help in mitigating the factors which feed insurgency. It is thus in the national interest of both countries to develop the infrastructure necessary to promote commercial interests.
Thus agreements signed between New Delhi and Naypyidaw on border areas development including the creation of border haats for trading and constructing various infrastructure projects are designed to bring in development and stabilise their common frontier areas. The Prime Minister’s visit has thus thrown open a great opportunity. As of now, Myanmar trades more with Thailand, China and Singapore than with India. Indian private sector too has limited investments in Myanmar. This has to be contrasted with the fact that inspite of American sanctions, US companies have big investments in Myanmar. We also need to expedite access to the sea for our Northeastern states through the Sittwe port. Though such access could also be availed through Chittagong, Bangladesh is yet to agree to it.
A closer security relationship between the two countries would also be beneficial in tackling insurgency and drug trafficking. Though a bilateral understanding exists, much more needs to be done. A stronger military to military relationship and joint operations by the armies of the two neighbours could also go a long way in building up security architecture forthe region. Finally, India can explore cooperation with Myanmar in the field of health care, education, skill building and low cost housing and in law enforcement. With Myanmar’s gradual transition to more open forms of government, India could offer assistance in the transformation process which isbound to be painful.
India’s s interaction with Myanmar is pivotal to its prevailing aspirations to become an important economic player which in turn would have strategic and security implications. The Prime Minister’svisit has opened the doors for a deepening of the relationship with Myanmar andother ASEAN countries.
The author is an M Phil Fellow, Institute of Foreign Policy Studies, University of Calcutta
Views expressed are personal