Suppress paranoia, speed up action
Tridivesh Maini on how competition with China should not mar our strategies on Myanmar
Manmohan Singh met Myanmar’s opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and invited her to India to deliver the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial lecture
A major problem which afflicts sections of India’s media and its strategic community is its deeply embedded suspicion vis-a-vis China which is not totally illegitimate but often exaggerated and counterproductive.
Take the recent visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Myanmar. First of all, 12 agreements were signed with a view to promote — amongst other things — more substantive economic engagement, energy cooperation, strategic cooperation, greater connectivity between both countries, agricultural cooperation, joint research and people to people contact .
Singh also sent a clear message that India meant business, by taking along a delegation of top Indian industrialists. Then, of course, he had a fruitful meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, Member of Parliament and General Secretary of the National League for Democracy and also handed over an invitation for the Jawaharlal Nehru memorial lecture on behalf of Congress President Sonia Gandhi.
Like the past, Singh refrained from making any uncalled-for statements with regard to China. On the contrary the Indian PM referred to Myanmar as a possible bridge between India and China. Even Minister for External Affairs SM Krishna made it unequivocally clear that every country has its own interests.
But if one were to look at some of the discourse emanating from sections of the media and strategic community in India, there seemed to be an obsession not so much with India’s bilateral engagement with Myanmar and where it can improve upon its past record, but more with what China has done in that country.
This excessive obsession with China — in different forms — has three clear problems:
First, it distracts us from our long-term foreign policy objectives both in the neighbourhood and outside, and clearly conveys the impression that our ties with the rest of the world are being dictated by China’s moves. This reflects an insecure mindset, something which only diminishes our global image.
Second, while focusing excessively on China, we tend to deflect all the blame for our shortcomings on the China factor, forgetting our own failures. A significant part of the discourse emanating from India focuses on China’s strategy to contain India within South Asia and of late through Myanmar. It is not China which can be blamed for India’s failure to make more of an impact in important countries like Myanmar.
After all, India’s abysmal peformance in project delivery and connectivity can not be attributed to China. It is India which has been slow in the execution of certain projects such as the Kaladan multi-modal transport project, which would provide access to India’s North-Eastern state of Mizoram via the Sittwe port (North-Western Myanmar), Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road construction and the Tamanthi hydropower project on the Chindwin river.
Similarly, while cross-border trade between India and Myanmar has been going on for some time, the border infrastructure is poor at both Moreh (Manipur) and Champhai. The abysmal infrastructural development on the Indian side is also likely to delay the Imphal-Mandalay bus. Compared to the poor connectivity between the Northeast and Myanmar, China’s Yunnan province for long has been well integrated with Myanmar and has been an important connector.
Finally, the excessive China obsession in India has another significant drawback. It obliterates some of the important positives of the relationship such as increased bilateral trade between both countries and the increased comfort level between political leadership of both countries.
APART FROM this, both countries are prominent members of BRICS and in a recent summit supported each other on a gamut of issues, such as how the West should deal with Iran and Syria. India is also pitching for a more important role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) of which China is one of the founding members. The decision is likely to be made later this week.
In the context of India’s immediate neighbourhood too, there have been some positives. Chinese support for economic engagement between India and Pakistan has been unequivocal. In the aftermath of the coup in Maldives, China was quick to assure India that it was in no mood to fish in troubled waters. The Chinese leadership welcomed Singh’s visit to Myanmar.
If India is to get over its China obsession, it is imperative to realise that security concerns are a crucial, but not singular component of a country’s external dealings. Policies and mindsets of 2012, can not forever be held hostage to the events of 1962.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.