Indian PM’s Energy Focus on Burma Visit

By Nirmala George 28 May 2012

NEW DELHI—Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrived on a three-day visit to Burma on Sunday that underscores New Delhi’s quest for energy supplies and concerns about China’s strong influence in the Southeast Asian country.

Singh said he hoped to focus on stronger trade and investment links, development of border areas and improving connectivity between India and Burma.

India remains “committed to a close, cooperative and mutually beneficial partnership with the government and people of Myanmar,” Singh said in a statement before leaving for Rangoon, Burma’s financial center and largest city.

The visit highlights India’s search for energy supplies to fuel its economic boom and concerns about China’s influence in Burma, where the elected—but military-backed—government is opening up its economy for investment and trade.

In recent years, India has nervously watched Beijing’s domination of Burma’s oil and gas exploration projects. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers are in Burma working on infrastructure and other projects.

Indian officials, however, are loath to acknowledge that India’s Burma policy is being driven by China’s inroads there.

India wants to “secure a stronger and mutually beneficial relationship with a neighboring country that is integral to India’s Look East policy,” Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai told reporters on Friday.

India has adopted a “Look East” policy of engaging with Southeast and East Asia, reaching out and deepening bilateral ties with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Indonesia among others in the region.

Singh’s visit will be the first in 25 years by an Indian prime minister, although the two countries share a 1,600-kilometer (1,000-mile) land border, as well as a maritime border in the Bay of Bengal.

Burma, which is officially known as Myanmar, had been an international pariah for decades under a military junta that quashed any hopes of democratic reform. A 2010 election, though, has lead to at least some reforms and a gradual opening up to the rest of the world.

The competition between India and China is expected to surface again when Burma begins auctioning new natural gas blocks, both offshore and onshore, in which Indian companies are expected to participate actively.

“It would be in Myanmar’s interest to not put all its eggs in one basket,” says Rajiv Bhatia, a former Indian ambassador to Burma, referring to China’s overwhelming presence in its oil and gas exploration sector.

Mathai said that during Singh’s visit, the two countries are slated to start a bus link between Imphal, capital of India’s Manipur state, and Mandalay, Burma’s second-largest city.

India also will announce the creation of an IT training institute, an agricultural research center and a rice research park in Burma, Mathai said.

Over decades of isolation by the West, China reached out to Burma, building billions of dollars in roads and gas pipelines in the impoverished country.

New Delhi too has offered Burma aid and assistance, but not on the same scale as China.

In recent years, India has offered around US $800 million in credit to Burma to help develop infrastructure such as railways, roads and waterways. New Delhi also is helping build a port in the coastal Burmese city of Sittwe. That port, Indian officials hope, will act as a trade gateway between India’s northeastern states and Southeast Asia.

Bilateral trade between India and Burma was around $1.2 billion in 2011. Both sides hope to push trade to $3 billion by 2015.

Singh’s trip follows high level visits to India by reformist Burmese President Thein Sein in October and visits by the foreign ministers of the two countries.

In the 1980s and early ’90s, India was a strong supporter of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in her fight against the country’s military. Singh will meet with Suu Kyi on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited Burma in 1987, the last visit by an Indian premier. But in the mid-’90s, India changed tack to engage with the country’s military junta, resisting pressures from the Western democracies that had imposed economic sanctions on Burma.

New Delhi insisted it had to follow a pragmatic policy, because it needed its neighbor’s help to crack down on Indian rebels who had built hideouts in the jungles along the India-Burma border.

India also argued that Burma’s military leaders could be nudged toward democracy only by engaging with them—not by isolating the impoverished nation.

Mathai said India also was opposed to the sanctions because Burma was a neighbor.

“When you are a neighboring country, you do not have the choice of a policy and engagement,” Mathai said. “You remain engaged irrespective of the situation.”

In the past year, Burma’s military leaders have freed thousands of political prisoners, eased limits on the press and launched a series of economic reform measures. The military-backed regime allowed Suu Kyi’s political party to contest elections and ushered in an elected government.

In April, the European Union suspended most of its sanctions to reward Burma’s political reforms, and the United States said this month that it would suspend a ban on American investment in the country.