Dawei project is a golden opportunity
Tridivesh S Maini argues that Thailand can help India increase influence in neighbourhood
NEW DELHI’S increasing interest in ASEAN is a welcome development. India’s overtures towards Indonesia and Vietnam are laudable. In Thailand, we have natural ally within the region. While hitherto both the countries have shared a cordial relationship in terms of tourism and close cultural linkages through Buddhism, bilateral trade between them too is touching $7 billion. The fact that both countries take each other seriously is evident from Thai PM Yingluck Shinawatra’s visit to India in January. A large number of issues such as pushing the level of trade to $14 billion by 2014, greater connectivity and closer strategic ties were discussed then.
For both strategic and economic reasons, it is imperative that the two countries enhance their engagament. While Thailand has a close strategic relationship with China, it has cordial economic ties with the US, with the latter being Thailand’s third largest export market. India too has a good relationship with the US and is also developing close linkages with China in the economic realm. But if one were to look at Bangkok and New Delhi’s engagement with the ASEAN beyond the prism of the South China Sea, they both have interest in Myanmar and are on a similar wavelength on a number of issues.
Firstly, Thailand, like India has struck a fine balance between the Myanmar regime and its democratic forces led by Aung San Suu Kyi. In fact, Thailand was the first country the National League of Democracy chairperson visited in May after a period of 24 years. Predictably, Myanmar President Thein Sein delayed his planned visit to Thailand in the same month. Likewise, Indian PM Dr Manmohan Singh, while calling for closer cooperation with the current regime in Myanmar, too made it a point to meet Suu Kyi and handed her an invite for the Jawaharlal Nehru lecture on Sonia Gandhi’s behalf.
Secondly, both countries are equally keen to increase their engagement with Naypyidaw, especially in the economic sphere. During his Myanmar visit, Dr Manmohan Singh explored synergies with that country in economic engagement, energy cooperation, strategic cooperation, road connectivity, agricultural cooperation, joint research and people-to-people contact. In fact, there was even a business delegation to explore possible investment opportunities and send a message that India’s interest in its neighbour was for the longer term. Thailand and Myanmar too have been exploring synergies in the economic sphere, though unlike India, the former which is also a neighbour, is taking its foray into Myanmar more seriously in terms of clearly identifying the impediments and opportunities and then moving ahead with implementation with a clear time frame in mind, something that New Delhi can learn from.
A clear illustration of this point was Myanmar President Thein Sein’s visit to Thailand in July, when he met Thai business leaders. Apart from supplying energy to Myanmar to meet the electricity shortage in that country, Thailand’s private sector is likely to make some other substantial forays there.
While it is imperative that India keeps a close watch on these developments and if possible explores synergies with Thailand, one project which is particularly important for both countries is the Dawei corridor as this will improve connectivity between the two countries through Myanmar’s Dawei port. This proposed project will connect Chennai with Dawei Sea Port in Myanmar and Laem Chambang Port in Thailand and help cut travel time between Chennai and Laem Chambang from six days to three.
DURING HER India sojourn in January, the Thai PM had pitched for the ambitious project, which is being undertaken by Ital-Thai and costs $8.6 billion in the first phase. Thailand’s interest in India’s participation in the project is evident from the fact that the Thai Foreign Ministry’s director-general of South Asian Affairs Narong Sasitorn led a delegation last week to Tamil Nadu, to explore the possibility of connectivity between Thailand via Myanmar with Southern India. In this context, meetings were held with the state Chief Secretary and officials of the State Planning and Development department, according to Thai daily The Nation. While the Indian private sector failed to show much interest in the project, the Tamil Nadu government officials, though excited, had no clear idea about how to take it forward.
India has missed numerous opportunities to increase its influence in the neighbourhood due to lethargy and myopia. The Dawei project is a golden opportunity, which the private sector and government must give high priority to. In this context, Thai-India cooperation is not desirable but imperative.
Maini is a New Delhi-based writer and foreign policy analyst.