India Looks to Counter Chinese influence in Myanmar

The visit in late August of Myanmar President Htin Kyaw to India underscores Naypyidaw’s difficulties on the foreign policy front.While the State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi headed to China on her first foreign visit outside of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Htin Kyaw’s first foreign visit was to India.

Naypyidaw most importantly depends on Beijing to rein in some of the ethnic rebels who operate in Myanmar’s frontier areas. In recent times, the country has faced international flak over its mishandling of the Rohingya issue and needs China’s assistance at international forums since Beijing wields veto powers in the United Nations Security Council.

However, huge Chinese investment in Myanmar has been a source of public resentment. Although the government under former President Thien Sien suspended construction on the controversial Chinese-built $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam in Kachin state – most of whose electricity would have supplied China – Suu Kyi before her visit to China entrusted a commission to re-look at the Myitsone and other hydropower projects on the Irrawaddy river.

Age-old ties with India

On the other hand, Myanmar has always shared close religious and ethnic ties with Myanmar. Ethnic groups like the Nagas are spread across both sides of the border between the two countries. Buddhism originated in India and many Myanmarese visit Buddhist holy shrines in India. The two share a land border approximately 1,600km long. During the days when the junta called the shots in Myanmar, it was New Delhi which kept up steady pressure to speed up the process of democratization. In addition, as both Myanmar and India were once British colonies, they share many commonalities in addition to the presence of a huge Indian diaspora in Myanmar.

The first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru was very close to the father of the modern Burmese nation, Aung San. His daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, studied in New Delhi where her mother was posted as the then Burmese ambassador to India. New Delhi has funded the construction of the 160-km Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road while work is going on apace on the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway which will connect Northeast India with Thailand via Myanmar and is poised to be a game-changer.

There are also prospects for this highway to be extended to Da Nang in Vietnam which would give India access to the South China Sea as well. In recent months, India’s relations with Hanoi have seen a big improvement, especially in the light of the recent visit of the Indian PM to Vietnam.

Meanwhile, the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport project, being built with Indian assistance, is intended to connect the port of Sittwe in Myanmar on the Bay of Bengal with Northeast India, giving this landlocked region access to the sea. Myanmar is an important part of India’s “Act-East Policy” known earlier as the “Look-East Policy.” It is India’s land bridge to the ASEAN region. Though many insurgent outfits active in India’s Northeast have found refuge in Myanmar in the past, authorities from the two sides have conducted joint operations against these insurgents, putting pressure on these insurgent outfits.

The Road Ahead

India is also aspiring to be a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Myanmar is aware of India’s ambitions and would also like to see an improvement in the people-to-people links between the two countries, especially given the Buddhist factor. However, China is Myanmar’s largest trading partner and the biggest source of foreign investment, with bilateral trade standing at US$9 billion in 2014. Myanmar-India trade stood at a dismal US$1.57 billion in 2014-15.

In addition, Myanmar depends on China to solve many of its problems, especially the ethnic insurgency issue. As for its ties with India, New Delhi needs Myanmar rather than the other way around and foreign policy mandarins in New Delhi must take this into consideration.

However, there has been huge public opposition to the Chinese presence in Myanmar over exploitation of resources in the past and as Myanmar tries to establish its diplomatic interests in the region and beyond, this would be weighing on the minds of the powers-that-be in Naypyidaw, who would do well to avoid putting all their eggs in the Chinese basket.

Rupakjyoti Borah is currently a Research Fellow with the Tokyo-based Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, specializing on India’s strategic ties with countries in the Indo-Pacific region. Twitter@rupakj