Ties should have strategic depth
Vibhanshu Shekhar on the way ahead for the India-Myanmar partnership
PRIME MINISTER Manmohan Singh’s visit to Myanmar on 28-30 May is significant for two reasons. First, 25 years have passed since the last visit by Rajiv Gandhi in 1987. Second, the visit is taking place at a time when Naypyidaw has surprised the world with both the scale and speed of change in its political outlook and in its engagement with the international community.
Nothing less than the announcement of strategic partnership with a long-term policy framework would befit the current level of relationship, both to lend credence to Myanmar’s democratic reforms as well as acknowledge its growing importance as a pivot in India’s Look East policy. Myanmar is, perhaps, the only neighbour after Bhutan which shares a conflict-free and comprehensive engagement with New Delhi. Myanmar has helped India in its protracted counter-insurgency operations in the Northeast, offered access to its huge energy resources and provided the launching pad for connectivity to ASEAN.
Three principal reasons warrant such a step. First, Myanmar is ripe for strategic partnership as she shares convergence of long-term strategic interests, plays a critical role in India’s security formulation, has substantial volume of engagement and adds considerable value to the country’s strategic positioning in regional politics. The content of India’s engagement with Myanmar, when compared with the contents of India’s strategic partnership with Australia or Malaysia, is much more strategic, sensitive, beneficial and multi-faceted.
Second, the strategic partnership would provide an important direction and vision to the otherwise somewhat unstructured pattern of India-Myanmar relationship that has evolved in the last decade. The partnership would give India a strategic depth in the sub-region of Bay of Bengal and a significant edge against other competing players, whether from the East or the West. While China has already signed the Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership with Myanmar in May 2011, the US has also offered partnership if democratic reforms continue. If India does not act now, it might be left behind. The country should not delay taking the right step.
Finally, the democratisation of Myanmar takes away the normative constraints related to the issue of democracy and human rights violations that had bedevilled India’s engagement with the military rulers and had divided the Indian policy establishment down the middle.
Nevertheless, the intent must be matched with substantial content. The year 2014 can be declared as the deadline for their completion, celebrating Myanmar’s chairmanship of ASEAN. However, the new energy-related projects should address local concerns and pressures.
After Myanmar opened up, Japan has offered to help in building Myanmar’s stock exchange, the American company Caterpillar is negotiating business in the heavy machinery sector. In contrast, their entry raises the premium on India’s developmental projects in the country, which have been suffering from poor planning, lax and inefficient implementation, huge time-lag and, of late, growing local opposition. India’s only hydel power project at Tamanthi in Myanmar has suffered from these limitations, prompting our foreign ministry to suggest its discontinuation. These challenges may undermine India’s competitive image, diminish the potential for bilateral cooperation in the energy and infrastructure sectors, and, therefore, marginalise New Delhi’s role.
SECOND, THE two countries could explore various avenues of cooperation involving the Small and Medium Entreprises (SMEs) of Myanmar and India’s Northeast states. Border trading stations should be improved and the number of items to be traded through the border. The two countries should also announce policies to revive strong people-to-people networks in the education and cultural sectors.
Third, besides enhancing defence and security cooperation, the partnership should focus on developing a common regional agenda as Myanmar assumes chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014 and begins active participation in regional cooperation.
Finally, the two countries should elevate the annual dialogue to the ministerial-level. So far, the regular bilateral discussion is confined to senior official level only, involving the home secretary, Government of India, and an official of deputy minister rank from the Myanmar side.
New Myanmar is a befitting case for the strategic partnership and the visit of the Prime Minister offers the right opportunity to reinvigorate the relationship by transforming it into a partnership.
Vibhanshu Shekhar is Research Fellow at
Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.