In the Great Game between China and India for Myanmar’s energy sector, Indian companies have been making successful inroads, with state-owned companies such as OVL and GAIL having invested almost US$1.33 billion in the China-Myanmar gas pipeline project, which runs 2,400 km. across Myanmar to Yunnan, the west China border state.
Myanmar’s government has cautiously turned away from China toward a neutral stance, caught as it is between Asia’s two biggest countries. The years when the junta ruled a pariah state condemned across the world were mostly spent as a China client. But with the opening to the west, the government in the capital of Naypyidaw has pulled back from the dragon’s embrace.
India has maintained an on-off relationship with Myanmar since the 1962 coup d’état in what was then Rangoon, maintaining lukewarm relations with the military junta since the late 1980s when soldiers of the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, shot down hundreds of student protesters in the streets and later cracked down brutally on Buddhist monks. India has finally arrived with political realism in Myanmar following its “democratic transition” which began with a new constitution allowing for limited popular voting in 2010. Subsequent elections in 2012 opened the country more.
Despite the decades of cool relations, India has a cultural advantage over China with the shared history of Buddhism, colonial rule and the struggle for independence. In addition the two countries share a long land border and maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal. Today, however, both countries have their own economic and national interests at heart rather than glorifying its rich past.
For the past quarter-century, India has followed a textbook “Look East” policy approach, making numerous efforts to reach out to Myanmar, given its strategic and economic value. Through Look East, New Delhi was also trying hard to give impetus to trade and economic ties in the land-locked and poverty-stricken northeast India, which is almost cut off from the majority of the country by the geographic intrusion of Bangladesh, by seeking cooperation of neighboring countries.
As Myanmar has increasingly opened up, that has opened up concomitant new business opportunities for more Indian companies. After the rise to power of the National Democratic Alliance government in 2014, the new leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, visited Myanmar a few months later. Modi has amended the government’s “Look East” policy to ”Act East.”