Myanmar’s Balancing Act Moves to India

By The Irrawaddy 2 August 2019

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s visit to India comes shortly after the US announced a visa ban on the Myanmar commander-in-chief and his deputy, Vice Senior General Soe Win and two other senior military officers. The nine-day visit marks a milestone in defense cooperation between the two countries.

New Delhi made a bold and strategic decision to invite Myanmar’s top commanders at a time when the military leaders face increased pressure and sanctions from some Western countries over human rights abuses, and amid prolonged fighting in Rakhine State.

Some seasoned policy makers in New Delhi said that the timing of the visit to India, immediately after the US announced the visa ban on the Myanmar generals, couldn’t be better. Presumably, some foreign officials, including the Chinese, were surprised by the visit.

Under the Act East policy of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, New Delhi has increasingly showed its readiness to engage more with Myanmar to counter China’s political and economic influence over its southern neighbor.

The current visit shows that India will not shy away from engage Myanmar and there is no doubt that India and Myanmar will deepen their unique relations, including in the area of defense and security cooperation. Analysts say it is important that Myanmar continues to diversify its cooperation with the neighbors who share its borders and be prepared for the geopolitical contest, given its strategic location between China and India.

The defense cooperation between Myanmar and India includes reviewing joint exercises, the training of Myanmar military personnel, strengthening maritime security via joint surveillance, capacity building, enhancing medical cooperation, cooperating on pollution responses and jointly developing new infrastructure, according to a statement from the Indian Ministry of Defense.

The visit itself is no doubt significant, as India will transfer one of its Russian-made Kilo-class diesel-electric attack submarines to the Myanmar Navy this year. It will be Myanmar’s first submarine, and the transfer will take place with Russia’s support. It is interesting that Myanmar has not opted to purchase a submarine from China. In the past, Myanmar military leaders have questioned the quality of Chinese military hardware and have since diversified their procurement sources.

Myanmar has purchased six Sukhoi SU-30SM fighter jets from Russia, which are now being assembled under a contract worth about US$204 million (307.29 billion kyats).

This demonstrates Myanmar military leaders’ ability to maximize and diversify military procurement among powerful allies. Indeed, there is no zero-sum game in Myanmar’s relations with powerful neighbors China and India, plus Russia and Japan.

Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing meets Chinese President Xi Jinping at the People’s Hall in Beijing in April 2019. / Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s website

During his visit to China in April, as he was meeting with top civilian and military officials in Beijing, Snr-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing’s office released a statement reading, “Myanmar regards China as an eternal friend and a strategic partner country.”

Snr-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing also told Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing that Myanmar’s military was ready to cooperate on implementing China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). He said the vast international infrastructure development plan includes a host of projects that could benefit Myanmar.

China plans to implement multi-billion dollar projects, including a deep seaport, new cities, industrial parks, border economic cooperation zones and high-speed railroad lines under the BRI. But these projects have encountered widespread criticism among civil society groups and local media. Western governments and India are monitoring the Chinese projects and Beijing’s assertiveness in Myanmar.

“Myanmar is a key pillar of India’s Act East Policy towards prioritizing relations with its East Asian neighbors,” reads the Indian Ministry of Defense statement. “India has steadily increased defense cooperation with Myanmar in recent years.”

Myanmar’s ability to be shrewd—even stubborn on occasion—when dealing with both allies and critics has come to the fore as the country’s military faces increased criticism over human rights abuses.

As the West chastises and distances itself from Myanmar over the Rohingya issue, Naypyitaw will deepen its relations with China and other powerful neighbors and friendly allies such as Japan, which recently offered to negotiate between Bangladesh and Myanmar over Rohingya repatriation.

India is also concerned that several ethnic insurgent groups have established base camps inside Myanmar in Sagaing Region and has repeatedly asked Myanmar to shut them down.

But beyond the insurgent groups, India is looking ahead to cooperate more with Myanmar to develop transport projects.

Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing (right) during his visit to India / Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s website

Among these is the Kaladan project in Rakhine State, which is expected to open sea routes and a highway transport system linking the eastern Indian seaport of Kolkata with its landlocked northeastern state of Mizoram through Myanmar’s Rakhine and Chin states. The Myanmar military’s ongoing conflict with the Arakan Army in northern Rakhine is a real concern for both countries’ security forces, but New Delhi officials may have calculated that the Myanmar military will quell the insurgency in the long run.

India’s real concern is China’s authority over Myanmar and the powerful insurgent groups based on the Chinese border. Myanmar and Indian officials may in fact have a shared concern here, as China-backed insurgents such as the Wa and Kokang have grown in economic and military power over the past two decades.

China is now developing a deep seaport in Rakhine State’s Kyaukphyu Township that will give it access to the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. India will therefore be seeking to enhance its maritime cooperation with Myanmar’s armed forces.

In other words, the game is on.

New Delhi’s engagement with Myanmar and its military is based on pragmatism and guided by its long-term goals vis-à-vis China.

This policy no doubt fits well with Naypyitaw’s inclination to seek cooperation from neighbors and allies in a difficult time.

Just how this nine-day visit will yield deeper relations between the two armed forces remained to be seen.

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