The contest between India and China for influence in Myanmar has become more intense in the recent years. As Myanmar underwent democratic reforms to reduce its economic dependence on China and increase its political interactions with the West, both countries had to respond to these changes appropriately. An analysis by Dr M. S. Prathibha*
Myanmar has emerged as an important strategic location, where India and China are vying for influence to further their regional aspirations. China sees Myanmar as a gateway to the Indian Ocean region that can grant it access to alternate maritime routes and a source of hydrocarbon resources for its energy needs. Once the US began its rebalancing towards Asia, China was compelled to preserve its hard-won strategic gains in a country, which it believed to be one of the friendly regimes in Southeast Asia. India, on the other hand, is keenly aware of China’s overwhelming influence and presence in Myanmar. It long had to contend with the realisation that supporting democratisation in Myanmar at the expense of its geo-political interests such as rejecting the military junta had considerably reduced Indian strategic presence in the region. At that juncture, the launching of India’s Look East Policy in 1991 under Prime Minister Narasimha Rao came handy to rework its engagement with Myanmar. Now, more than ever, Indian policymakers believe that Myanmar has become a highly significant factor in India’s Act East Policy, where India can establish physical connectivity between its northeastern states and Southeast Asian countries via Myanmar.
Even though India’s political will to engage Myanmar had strengthened, but it has been less than successful in completing the agreed infrastructure projects. The India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway project started in 2012 is considered one of the defining projects of India’a Act East Policy, has missed it’s 2016 deadline. This project connects Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar. Upon successful completion, India has proposed to extend it to other Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. The Sittwe Port project took one extra year to complete, and the Kaladan Corridor Multi-modal Transport Project is yet to touch the finish line. However, the Chinese investments in infrastructural projects have been substantial and their completion rate is on the higher side. For instance, China is building the Bay of Bengal Port in Kyuak Pyu, where it seeks to have roughly 70-85 percent equity share. They are also developing $10 billion Kyauk Pyu Economic Zone, which also includes pipelines that connect to the Chinese province of Yunnan to transfer oil products. China is also involved in many other infrastructure projects across Myanmar.
The contest between India and China for influence in Myanmar has become more intense in the recent years. As Myanmar underwent democratic reforms to reduce its economic dependence on China and increase its political interactions with the West, both countries had to respond to these changes appropriately. Subsequent elections in 2011 and 2015 saw Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy [NLD] winning the elections. The political transition in Myanmar had far-reaching consequences for both the countries.
For India, it opened up an avenue for enhancing its strategic partnership and play a role in strengthening the democratic process in the long-term, by influencing the Myanmarese to choose democratic ethos over authoritarian tendencies. On the other hand, China’s initial difficulties in adjusting to a newly democratised Myanmar and its over-reliance on the military government for strategic influence reduced its negotiating space to engage other political actors. Moreover, China had to contend with public expressions of discontent over environmental degradation and displacement involving certain Chinese investments in Myanmar. For example, Myanmar had to cancel the Myitsone hydroelectric dam project yielding to public pressure.
Nonetheless, China has responded to these challenges by reorienting their policy from maintaining exclusive political engagement with the military to a broader and inclusive political engagement with political parties that represent various ethnic groups. China finds this useful for many reasons. As Myanmar is facing ethnic insurgencies especially in the Shan State in the north and the Rakhine State in the west, illegal arms and timber trade from China has ensured an active breeding ground for these groups to operate across the India-Myanmar-China tri-junction area. By supporting these groups, it has been able to pressurise Myanmar and compel it towards peace talks between the militant groups and the government. For instance, it was believed that the Chinese facilitated the recent peace agreement between the Myanmar government and United Wa State Army (UWSA). By engaging itself in the peace process, China believes that it can regain its image in Myanmar and generate positive feeling among the local population for its infrastructure projects. Further, by reaching out to more political parties, it not only can gain long-term political engagement beyond the leadership of Aung Sun Syi but also leverage its interactions with the political and militant groups against Myanmar.
Responding to these changes, India has stepped up its strategic presence in Myanmar. On the economic front, India has made Myanmar a key component of the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation).
Apart from the completing the Sittwe port project, India has also awarded a road contract to connect Paletwa River Terminal to Zorinpuri in Mizoram. Besides approving the upgradation and widening of roads between Imphal in Manipur and Moreh in Myanmar, it has also showcased its intention for investments in gas and refinery. During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Myanmar in September 2017, both sides signed 11 agreements including maritime security cooperation. On the security realm, India has increased its interactions with Myanmar to monitor and prevent destabilisation in its northeastern states. This is significant as the separatist groups in Myanmar apart from supporting insurgent groups in India’s northeast, they supply illegal arms acquired from China and also provide a training ground. For instance, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has supported the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) (Khaplang), who in turn believed to receive support from the Chinese officials from Yunnan who are ever present in the Kachin and Sagaing areas in Myanmar.
The strategic significance of Myanmar to both India and China has made them form cordial relations through political and economic inducements. The visible case is their efforts to respond to the deteriorating security situation in Rakhine. India on its part has refused to sign the Bali Declaration at the World Parliamentary Forum on Sustainable Development as it made a reference to the violence in Rakhine state. Further, India’s reproach to Myanmar has been mild. In fact, India in its joint statement with Myanmar during Modi’s visit in 2017, has condoned the attack by Rohingya insurgents on the Myanmarese security forces. China has also supported Myanmar’s position on Rohingyas. It has been defending Myanmar’s actions in the United Nations Security Council [UNSC] discussions and would prove crucial for Myanmar in case of a resolution moved against it. Therefore, the contest between India and China over Myanmar would continue as both sides keep calibrating their behaviour to serve their geo-political interests be it expanding India’s presence in Southeast Asia or China securing its alternate energy routes.
*Dr M. S. Prathibha is an Associate Fellow at the East Asia Centre in IDSA. She could be contacted at email@example.com
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team.