Building a Partnership through Vision and Generosity

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Building a Partnership through Vision and Generosity

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Myanmar in November 2014 for the East Asian Summit meeting could be an opportunity to give a new impetus to India-Myanmar relations, which have not yet reached their full potential but which could conceivably act as a positive stabilising and broadening factor for regional development and security.

Myanmar’s competent chairing of ASEAN during 2014 has demonstrated how, in certain situations, it can deploy its multilateral diplomatic skills to beneficial effect, drawing both on its own practical experience at a regional level and on its strong disposition to remain neutral in its relations with external powers. A country like India can bring to bear additional constructive influence on problematic trans-national issues, such as maritime safety and security, and cross-border movement of people and goods. Since both countries are members of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), this could be a useful space for fruitful practical collaboration in the future - but this remains a prospect for the years ahead.

Convergence of Interests

It goes without saying that the key regional institutions such as ASEAN and forums such as East Asian Summit meetings will assume greater importance for the future fulfilment of India’s interests in Southeast Asia and of Myanmar’s interests in the advancement of its western regions. India should find encouragement that its relations with Myanmar are consistent with, and not contradictory to, any diplomatic or strategic initiatives it launches with Myanmar. With its long tradition of neutrality and non-aligned foreign policy, Myanmar is a natural diplomatic partner. Both the countries are strong supporters of the universal application of the United Nations system. Myanmar’s regional associations (with ASEAN and the East Asian Summit) are also entirely consistent with the main tenets of Indian foreign policy.

Some commentators overstate the importance of India-Myanmar security and economic development, based on simplistic analyses of ‘geo-strategic’ interests in which China sometimes assumes a menacing place. If India and Myanmar can manage their shared cross–border interests intelligently and sympathetically, and implement the many promises and undertakings that they have entered into in the past, but not yet fully accomplished, this would be welcome by any government in either country. This would also leave little scope for China to pursue a mischievous role if it has more direct objectives to pursue. Sharing a border does not translate automatically into shared concerns, but nor does it inevitably result in problems and risks.

Addressing Security Concerns

Both India and Myanmar share a strong interest in managing insurgency in India’s northeast and Myanmar’s northwest. The respective security authorities have worked cooperatively for several years and concluded a formal security cooperation agreement earlier in 2014. Calls for autonomy, or a cross-border autonomous zone, among Naga tribes on both sides of the border seem to have been more or less contained in recent years. Sound and sensitive political, social and economic policies by both India and Myanmar within their own borders will remain vital to resolving residual differences, but important progress is already being made on both sides of the India-Myanmar border. The inter-connectedness of the people and mutually beneficial socio-economic activities (including education) across this border could emerge as assets for both countries. Repressive or restrictive approach by governments in these border areas would be counter-productive.

Overall, security concerns along their 1,600 kilometre shared border are not really a significant current concern, although for India, any incident such as occasional bomb attacks are a matter calling for firm responses. The border is quite ‘porous’, however, and border management is not necessarily always effective. Intermittent but as yet inconclusive talks have been held between the Indian government and various resistance groups in recent years, and the frequency of security incidents has declined since 2009. However, not all insurgent groups in Assam have links with Myanmar, so the Indian and Myanmar government interests are not identical. For Myanmar, controlling the spread of insurgent activity inside their country is their priority, and as long as anti-government activities do not escalate into more serious insurgent acts, the Myanmar side is unlikely to regard this as a very important matter.

For India, it helps that Myanmar is still a highly controlled society, although suffering from various forms of internal conflict. Moreover, Myanmar’s own forces have always aimed at self-defence; they have never targeted seizing of foreign territory; it has no foreign troops based in the country; and observes the restrictions of most relevant international arms and narcotics control regimes. Neither side has any interest in fomenting security disturbances in the other, or allowing breaches of trans-national crimes. The situation along the border has improved for both governments, even if anti-government activities have not been wiped out.

A Vision for the Future

Ultimately, the economic corridor from India through Myanmar to Thailand and beyond will be an important link for trade and tourism, and for transporting economically and efficiently the essential bulk materials such as energy and food on which growing societies and economies at either ends rely. However, this is very much a futuristic ‘vision’; to describe Myanmar as playing a key role as a ‘land bridge’ ignores the current reality of poor infrastructure, physical remoteness, and serious lack of communications across their shared border areas. Regional financial institutions such as the Asian Development Bank are already preparing plans to assist in achieving improved transport links in such areas. Now that sanctions targeting Myanmar have been largely terminated, it should be possible to focus on larger development opportunities through international financial institutions that will be a real catalyst for further progress.

However, India does not need Myanmar to be its ‘gateway to Southeast Asia’, just because of their physical geographical connections. India already has substantial commercial, technological and financial links of its own with most of the countries of Southeast Asia. Rather, India should develop stronger relations with Myanmar across the board, for the sake of more robust political, economic, and strategic security interests. In addition, the existing foundation of cultural, people-to-people, and educational relations with Myanmar can also be further developed. Nor should India simply see Myanmar as an element of a ‘Look East’ policy, which is, in reality, focussed beyond Myanmar. If Myanmar really represents a rare opportunity for significant business growth, some of the benefits should come India’s way.

Pursuing Opportunities for Intrinsic Merits

Unfortunately, since Myanmar’s politico-economic reforms started in 2011, India has been underperforming in its bilateral economic relations with Myanmar. India’s economic importance to Myanmar has actually declined somewhat. India is still the largest buyer of Myanmar’s grain and Myanmar’s third largest export market (it was for a second time). However, total bilateral trade between Myanmar and India reached $1.355 billion in 2013, well behind total trade with China, Thailand, and Singapore (but ahead of the EU). Myanmar’s exports to India accounted for $971.33 million, consisting mainly of food products. Border trade has been officially encouraged for some time, but so far has only reached modest levels, understandable given the border areas in both countries are relatively poor and undeveloped, remote from major centres and trade routes, and still suffer from poor transport and communication connections. Transnational border problems (smuggling, illegal people movement, anti-government insurgency) are relatively minor in scale, notwithstanding attempts by both governments to dramatise their effects at times.

According to official statistics, Indian investment in Myanmar amounted to a mere $300 million in 13 projects as of April 2014; this represents a mere 0.65 percent of the total foreign investment in Myanmar. India is only 11th in Myanmar’s foreign investment line-up, despite Myanmar seeking to encourage foreign direct investment ever since 1988, and especially since revising its foreign investment law in late 2012. Myanmar can be a valuable and reliable source of food for India, and when Myanmar’s per capita GNP improves, as it will, the country will eventually be a good market for India’s manufactured products. But both sides tend to ignore the other when setting priorities.

As a general approach, however, India should avoid seeing Myanmar purely through the prism of China’s rising profile in Southeast Asia and in Myanmar, but rather should pursue opportunities with Myanmar for their intrinsic merits. Some Indian commentators have exaggerated the sinister character of China’s ‘presence’ in Myanmar, for which there is little or no evidence. They fail to understand Myanmar’s determination to preserve its independence vis-à-vis China, both through emphasising the need for mutual benefit in China-Myanmar relations, and through developing foreign relations with other countries - such as the United States, and Japan - in an even-handed way. They do not realise that Myanmar has often stood up to China, and has at times refused unreasonable Chinese demands, whether bilaterally, or in bodies such as ASEAN, the Mekong River Commission and the Asian Development Bank’s Greater Mekong Scheme.

The ultimate truth is that Myanmar can neither significantly facilitate nor substantially block China’s strategic access to India or the Indian Ocean. In reality, it has no national interest to be served in following either path. Sometimes, the Myanmar government has sought to gain strategic leverage out of Sino-Indian competition, not always successfully, but generally, Myanmar’s relations with India and China are not equivalent: for Myanmar, China looms as far more important than India.

At the moment, Myanmar is in great need of capital and technology, which it will in due course be able to purchase on a commercial basis. India is well placed to supply both capital and technology, which is commercially competitive as well as suitable and easily assimilated. Improved transport and communication links are vital to any sustainable, long-term development of bilateral relations, which goes beyond rhetoric, sentimentality, and empty phrases. India could also be a source for ideas on consolidation of democratic practices.

India’s success in building a truly solid partnership with Myanmar calls for vision and generosity on both sides. Private sector efforts will be central to the challenge. The risks are not that great for either side, but it might be difficult to overcome outdated mindsets and unrealistic expectations.

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Trevor Wilson

Trevor Wilson is Visiting Fellow, Department of Political & Social Change, Australian National University, Canberra.

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