India’s prospects with Myanmar4 min read . Updated: 14 Mar 2016, 12:30 AM IST
India needs a stable neighbour on the east to control, consolidate and cater better to the north-eastern region
India-Myanmar relations are set to strengthen exponentially, based on the spurt in bilateral discussions and agreements just over the past few weeks. The announcements on regional connectivity and trade agreement were made on 17 and 18 February, as part of the eighth edition of the India-Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Delhi Dialogue.
Key among these agreements is a renewed commitment to complete the 3,200-km India-Asean trilateral highway that extends from Moreh in India to Mae Sot in Thailand via Mandalay, Myanmar. Nine border haats or trading posts are also being considered along the 1,640-km land border with Myanmar.
Expedited negotiations for concluding the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) between India and the Asean countries were also discussed. The RCEP will expand India’s trade and investment circle in the Indian Ocean region.
India and Myanmar also signed a formal agreement for conducting coordinated naval patrols. The standard operating procedure was signed at the end of a three-day joint navy patrol—from 13 to 16 February. This was the fourth India-Myanmar Coordinated Patrol naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal region.
Increasing connectivity, trade and infrastructure investment and greater security cooperation with South-East Asia are core aims of India’s ‘Act East’ policy. Central to the policy is increased engagement with Myanmar. The changed political structure in Myanmar, post the 2015 election, is the most important determinant of the future trajectory of India-Myanmar relations. The Takshashila Institution has released a discussion document recommending policy directions for a stronger India-Myanmar relationship.
Myanmar has been undergoing a political transition since the 2015 election. The resounding verdict in favour of the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi will see a democratic government take shape in Myanmar in April. The election marks a new stage in Myanmar’s relationship, both within and without its borders. The country’s isolation for the past 50 years has driven the economy, education and healthcare to abysmal positions. It also pushed the country to depend overly on China for most of its trade and investments.
The military’s compliance with the results of the election this time around reflects the country’s need to seek balance in its foreign policy engagements. Greater integration with the West will also mean better investments and improvements in the quality of life within the country. India, as Myanmar’s western neighbour, has the ability to provide Myanmar the vital connection it requires.
Myanmar’s biggest challenge in the coming years will be to control, consolidate and protect its borders and its sovereignty. Moving forward on a comprehensive peace agreement with the ethnic nations and containing insurgencies will be its primary goal. It will also want to focus on rebuilding its economy. The government will want to maintain and increase the current growth rate of 8.5% and move to create a better climate for longer, stable investments.
India, in turn, needs a stable neighbour in the east to control, consolidate and cater better to the northeastern region. It also needs consistent, long-term policies, along with diversity in its engagements with Myanmar to ensure better reach in the subcontinent and the greater Indian Ocean region. India’s interest in Myanmar within this context can be narrowed down to two factors: one, containing insurgency in the north-east and better integration of these regions with India. Second, a broader engagement which will include institutional and capacity building, economic investments and greater cross-border connections.
Four of India’s north-eastern states share a border with Myanmar. India also shares the waters of Bay of Bengal, including the strategically important Andaman & Nicobar islands. Myanmar’s ports and land corridors provide direct access to the rest of the Asean countries.
Passive policies and a lack of focus on engagement on India’s eastern flank has resulted in economic alienation and discontentment. The rise of insurgency in the region has also resulted in political instability, greater violence and threat to India’s sovereignty and national security.
The 1990s and 2000s saw India and Myanmar work in a concerted manner towards eliminating insurgency threats. Post election, it will need to work with the military and the current government to uproot the remaining anti-India camps. It also requires Myanmar to control and police its own borders to prevent arms and monetary support for these groups coming in from its northern borders.
India also needs to focus on increasing its economic investments in the country. It remains Myanmar’s fifth largest trading partner with Indian imports from Myanmar exceeding exports to Myanmar. A direct trade route, effective security and calculated investments can help in increasing trade. Encouraging private companies to invest in Myanmar, support for rebuilding institutions, and continued involvement with the NLD and the military as it negotiates a new peace agreement are critical ways in which the bilateral relationship can grow.
India’s national security and growth in the region depend on it taking greater initiative and committing itself to consistent growth and development in the north-east. Better protection of our borders, long-term involvement with key projects, diversity in investments and a non-condescending approach to our neighbour should be the focus of our Myanmar policy.
Priya Ravichandran and Guru Aiyar are researchers with The Takshashila Institution’s geostrategy programme.
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