Guest Column

For India, There Are Many Reasons to Engage Myanmar

By Archana Atmakuri & Mustafa Izzuddin 11 January 2020

As one of only two Southeast Asian countries invited to attend the swearing-in of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi after he won re-election in May 2019, Myanmar’s relations with India have been thrust into the spotlight. Here’s why Naypyitaw should matter to Delhi in 2020.

For a start, Myanmar is an important member of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), a minilateral subregional organization that is committed to fostering bilateral or regional cooperation among Bay of Bengal countries. As the members of BIMSTEC were invited by Modi to his second inauguration, he will be looking to prioritize this body in his second term, which will include greater engagement with Myanmar.

Myanmar is geopolitically significant to India as it stands at the center of the India-Southeast Asia region. Myanmar is the only Southeast Asian country that shares a land border with northeastern India, stretching some 1,624 kilometers. The neighbors also share a 725-km maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal.

Being the only country that sits at the intersection of India’s “Neighborhood First” policy and its “Act East” policy, Myanmar is an essential element in India’s practice of regional diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific, and serves as a land bridge to connect South Asia and Southeast Asia.

It is therefore in India’s geostrategic interest to see Myanmar prevail as a stable and autonomous country, thereby making possible greater bilateral engagement in India-Myanmar relations.

The last thing Delhi policymakers would want is a failed Myanmar state at India’s doorstep and a weakened Myanmar falling into the clutches of China as a satellite state, thereby being pressured to do Beijing’s bidding in regional affairs. Without colliding head-on with China, Delhi scours for ways to outsmart Beijing so that the balance of power in mainland Southeast Asia is tilted in favor of India. This makes Myanmar an inadvertent “kingmaker” in Sino-Indian relations.

It is little surprise then that Myanmar is the only Southeast Asian country that has a separate bureaucratic division (shared with Bangladesh) in India’s External Affairs Ministry, testifying to the continued importance of Myanmar to India’s foreign policy under Modi’s government.

India sees Myanmar as being vital to fulfilling its ambition to become a US$5-trillion (7,353-trillion-kyat) economy by 2024. But with total bilateral trade of $2 billion, India’s economic engagement with Myanmar lags behind China, behoving Modi’s government to scale up India-Myanmar economic ties. This dovetails with India giving greater weight to bilateral economic engagement with Southeast Asian countries after it withdrew from the multilateral Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

Facilitating connectivity is central to improving India-Myanmar economic relations. India regards Myanmar as a gateway to link up to the rest of Southeast Asia, and thus has invested in ASEAN-wide infrastructural projects that are able to boost trade in the ASEAN-India Free Trade Area.

Infrastructure projects are underway, such as the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport (KMMTT), which aims to connect the eastern Indian seaport of Kolkata with the Sittwe deep-water port in Rakhine State by sea. It is incumbent on India to bring the projects they front and finance into fruition expeditiously.

As part of its policy for the Indian Ocean called Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR), central to which is “port-led development,” India developed the Sittwe port in Rakhine State. This port, which sits on the Bay of Bengal, serves as a critical node of the KMMTT initiative to connect southwestern Myanmar to northeastern India by creating a multi-modal trinary of sea, river and road transport corridor to boost interconnectivity.

India’s long-term strategic goal is to create a Special Economic Zone surrounding the Sittwe port, and in so doing, cement India’s footprint in Rakhine and boost its presence in the Bay of Bengal. The Sittwe port is meant to be India’s answer to the Chinese-fronted Kyaukphyu port, which is intended to cement China’s geostrategic footprint in Rakhine.

For economic relations to improve, India and Myanmar must boost their security cooperation at the border. The more secure the border is, the greater the economic activity will be. Part of the reason why the KMMTT has faced delays is that the route of the project traverses a warzone in Rakhine state, where a battle rages on between the Myanmar Army and the Arakan Army rebels on the one hand, and on the other, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. Insurgents from India’s Nagaland have also disrupted the completion of the KMMTT project.

The Indian and Myanmar armies have carried out two joint military operations, codenamed Operation Sunshine 1 and 2, to fight militants along the borders of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, which borders the northeastern Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram. Greater impetus was given to these operations after Modi visited Myanmar in 2018.

Seeing that Myanmar is critical to its national security interests, India provides military training and conducts joint military exercises with the Myanmar Army like the India-Myanmar Bilateral Military Exercise (IMBAX-2017 and IMBEX 2018-19), by which India had trained the Myanmar army to be able to participate in UN peacekeeping operations.

To deepen their defense relations, India and Myanmar signed a landmark defense cooperation agreement in July 2019 during the visit to India by Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

Realizing the growing importance of the Bay of Bengal, the navies of both India and Myanmar conducted a historic bilateral naval exercise, IMNEX-18, in 2018. India also invited the Myanmar army to participate in the India-led multilateral Milan naval exercise that occurs biennially in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, with the next one taking place in March 2020.

To elevate its “Made in India” arms industry, India has identified Myanmar as key to increasing its military exports. Along those lines, Myanmar bought India’s first locally produced anti-submarine torpedo, called TAL Shyena, in 2017, and in 2019, Myanmar acquired a diesel-electric Kilo-class submarine, INS Sindhuvir, which India had modernized after purchasing from Russia in the 1980s.

For Naypyitaw, these military purchases are meant to secure and protect Myanmar’s maritime interests, especially on the back of its neighbors Bangladesh and Thailand acquiring submarines from China. In this submarine procurement race, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Myanmar are competitively hedging their military purchases between India and China.

Myanmar’s geostrategic importance to India has meant that Delhi did not take a hardline approach on Naypyitaw vis-à-vis the Rohingya issue, even keeping its distance when Myanmar was hauled into the International Court of Justice over accusations of Rohingya genocide. That the Indian government is now led by the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party also meant that the BJP-led government, with their Islamophobic tendencies, is unlikely to be sympathetic to the plight of Muslim Rohingyas.

But because of geopolitical considerations and mindful of international public opinion, India, which has a Hindu majority, will need to perform a balancing act between Muslim-majority Bangladesh and Buddhist-majority Myanmar as far as the Rohingya issue is concerned. India has therefore played it safe by providing humanitarian relief even while deporting Rohingya refugees from India for security reasons, provoking the UN’s ire. The quicker the Rohingya issue is resolved, the easier it will be for India to manage its relations with Myanmar and Bangladesh, focusing instead more on bilateral and subregional economic cooperation.

Not immediately obvious is Myanmar’s importance to India’s conduct of cultural diplomacy through the lens of Buddhism for tourism purposes. Modi’s “Buddhist Circuit” initiative, which seeks to double foreign tourist arrivals and revenue by connecting ancient Buddhist heritage sites across different states in India, should resonate with Buddhist-majority Myanmar.

India’s Buddhist diplomacy would not only attract pilgrims from mainland Buddhist Southeast Asia and thereby bolster the country’s tourist industry, but it could also build up India’s diplomatic reservoir of goodwill and trust with Buddhist-majority countries such as Myanmar.

India-Myanmar ties are on the cusp of a remarkable transformation. The moment is opportune and the atmosphere is conducive for the governments of India and Myanmar to intensify efforts toward making India-Myanmar relations profoundly significant in each other’s foreign policy.

On the one hand, Myanmar is striving to be stable and autonomous as it continues to manage its difficult democratization, while on the other, Modi is marketing India to the world. While Myanmar is India’s gateway to Southeast Asia, India is Myanmar’s gateway to South Asia.

Looking ahead to the 2020s, the litmus test for the political leaderships of India and Myanmar is whether they are able to work together in taking a perfunctory India-Myanmar bilateral relationship to the next level of deepening engagement on a sustainable basis.

Envisioning the potential in India-Myanmar relations has to be prioritized by both countries, and bilateral commitments translated to practical outcomes, lest India and Myanmar end up as one of those bilateral relationships that disappoints or merely flatters to deceive.

The onus, however, remains on India as to how far and deep it is prepared to nurture its relations with Myanmar, knowing full well that Naypyitaw will matter much to Delhi in the next decade, not least if India wants to augment its standing as a regional power in the Indo-Pacific.

Archana Atmakuri is Research Analyst and Dr. Mustafa Izzuddin is Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. A version of this article was published in The Diplomat.

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