India’s fight for Myanmar

India is quietly seeking to dilute China’s power in the emerging economy.

Visiting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan
Observers have commented that Indian officials may benefit from the 'opening up' of Myanmar [AFP]

Chang Mai, Thailand –
When Indian foreign minister SM Krishna traveled to Myanmar in June 2011, he brought with him a gift of ten heavy-duty rice silos. It was a sweetener for the new Myanmar government, which had taken office only months before. Krishna became the first foreign dignitary to meet with newly elected ministers, and his visit symbolised India’s drive to court the quasi-military outfit now occupying Naypyidaw.

Dam threatens livelihood of Cambodia’s poor

The silos, delivered three years after the devastating Cyclone Nargis, were however something of a diversion, the more benign face of a relationship that took root in the early 1990s and sullied India’s image as a beacon of democracy in the region. After it had about-faced on support for Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement during the administration of PV Narasimha Rao, India became one of only eight countries to regularly supply weaponry to the Myanmar junta – when former junta chief Than Shwe trod the red carpet in New Delhi in 2010, Myanmar expatriates burned effigies in the streets.

India’s decision to overhaul a generally principled foreign policy in favour of a realpolitik agenda was driven largely by the rapid growth of regional markets, particularly the Asian Tigers – Rao had been able to exploit growing unease within the Indian cabinet at what it saw as an overtly idealistic approach to international relations that, despite winning plaudits from the west, had meant its economy was losing out as regional countries sped forth.

In Myanmar, India saw a gateway to East Asian markets and a goldmine of natural resource capability. As the “Look East” policy took shape in the early 1990s, officials began tentative approaches to the then ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). In 1993, Rao sent foreign minister JN Dixit to Yangon, a visit that both outraged Myanmar’s political opposition, and marked perhaps the strongest signal of shifting attitudes within the Indian cabinet.

Door creaking open

Over time, the policy evolved. India, despite persistent denial, was to sell weaponry – howitzers, munitions and, according to one leaked US cable from 2007, tanks – in a bid to befriend the regime and draw it out of China’s grasp. That it has struggled to do, however – Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who becomes the first Indian leader to visit its neighbour in a quarter century, knows well the Myanmar government’s most adept diplomatic skill, that of playing its suitors off against one another for their own gain.

Despite the historically close relationship between China and Myanmar, Beijing is yet to send its premier south across the border.

India has sat and watched over the years as China nudged it out of contention on a slew of major energy projects: Beijing had the global clout that India lacked, and which Myanmar needed – a veto in the UN Security Council, the means to finance its overwhelming appetite for natural resources and a repressed domestic lobbying force.

But nine months after Myanmar suspended the massive China-backed Myitsone Dam project, a door is creaking open for India. Despite the historically close relationship between China and Myanmar, Beijing is yet to send its premier south across the border – Singh’s visit therefore carries extra pertinence against the backdrop of difficult times between the two traditional allies, and he will look to exploit Naypyidaw’s obvious unease at its subservience to China (although government sources told the Times of India this week that the trip was aimed at “peace and prosperity”, and not Indian expansionism).

At the same time, however, the Myitsone episode will act as a warning to New Delhi about the changing dynamics inside Myanmar, a country that, until last year, was seen as a source of unrestrained plunder – but which is now beginning to tighten the rules. That will worry Singh, who is often the target of frustration at India’s perennial energy shortfall – some estimates put the proportion of India’s population without regular access to electricity at 40 per cent, despite it being the world’s fourth highest energy consumer, while the US is currently pushing New Delhi to sever ties with Iran, a chief oil supplier.

Beyond its neighbour’s vast energy reserves, there is also the geostrategic factor that makes India’s quest to court Myanmar all the more imperative – its 1,640 kilometre shared border is the only overland route that India has to the burgeoning economies of south-east Asia – and several trade-oriented ventures, including a recently announced cross-border bus service, as well as the more ambitious Kaladan project to develop sea, river and land routes between the countries, are underway.

Weapon sales

It’s no easy feat, however: India’s northeastern states are plagued by insurgencies (the United Liberation Front of Assam is known to shelter inside Myanmar’s border, while Maoists are believed to have trained on Myanmar soil) – half a dozen anti-New Delhi groups operate there, acting as an impediment to any nascent border trade. Attempts have been made to develop the region, including building a major highway along the border and military infrastructure to better tackle the insurgencies, but the pace of progress has been slow.

With Myanmar due to begin auctioning gas blocks in the near future, China and India will likely lock horns.

Indian sales of weapons to Myanmar are ostensibly aimed at tackling the problem – shipments of heavy artillery were earmarked for Myanmar battalions based close to the India border, but it is unlikely that Naypyidaw kept to its side of the deal (indeed, India has on several occasions scolded the apparent nonchalance with which Myanmar, which is battling its own domestic armed opposition, approaches the issue). Instead, activists have decried Indian arms sales as providing support for the Myanmar military in their attacks on ethnic minorities and, quite likely, civilians during the September 2007 uprising.

But Singh has spoken of “exploring new initiatives” in bilateral ties, and takes with him an offer that he hopes will appease critics and curry greater favour with Myanmar’s new rulers, that of expertise in democracy building. It was supposedly for this reason that President Thein Sein traveled to New Delhi in October last year (a trip made notable by the fact that Myanmar had just held a political prisoner amnesty) and, as many countries appear wont to do, India will claim vindication of its policy in the wake of Thein Sein’s reforms.

As international business vies for space in the “next economic frontier”, Indian companies may have to take on an uncharacteristic aggression in their approaches to Myanmar – the recession-hit European economies will also be looking for new hunting grounds, adding to the competition that India faces in its reinvigorated push for influence in the country. Singh is flanked by a business delegation and will hope to sign various deals on defence and energy cooperation – with Myanmar due to begin auctioning gas blocks in the near future, China and India will likely lock horns, and the retrospective success of Singh’s trip may hinge on who is granted concessions.

But the timing of the visit makes sense – as the Hindustan Times notes: “China is both Myanmar’s most influential foreign neighbour and its most nervous. No country is as deeply entrenched in the economy of Myanmar while being so wary of the political reforms that began there last year.”

Singh will be able to use the evolution in Myanmar’s foreign relations, most notably an eagerness to diversify its clientele, to his advantage – New Delhi’s latterly self-centred regional policy has quietly sought to dilute China’s power, and Myanmar may now be ripe for realising this goal.

Francis Wade is a freelance journalist and analyst covering Burma and Southeast Asia.

Follow him on Twitter: @Francis_Wade