In the backdrop of strained ties with China, the importance of relations with Myanmar has increased as shown by last week's consultations between the foreign offices of both countries.
With an annual bilateral trade of just $ 2 billion, one can be forgiven for believing that India does not give due importance to Myanmar among its neighbours. That it is the only South-East Asian country to have a separate bureaucratic division in India's external affairs ministry seeks to counter that notion. Myanmar is also the only country that sits bang at the trijunction of two of India's biggest policies that have become cornerstones of the Modi's government's diplomacy in Asia - Act East and Neighbourhood first.
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In the wake of worsened relations with China, the importance of Myanmar has only increased. As a buffer state, Myanmar shields north-eastern states like Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram from directly sharing a border with China. Keeping Myanmar on its side is crucial in India's overall diplomacy with China. That India does not take Myanmar for granted was fully evident in the virtual consultations between the foreign offices of both countries on 1 October.
The delegations led by India's foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla and Myanmar's permanent secretary U Soe Han deliberated on the entire gamut of relations, including border cooperation and upgradation of border infrastructure, status of India's ongoing development projects in Myanmar, trade and investment ties, power and energy cooperation, consular matters and cultural cooperation, including the ongoing restoration work on earthquake damaged pagodas in Bagan. Cooperation in regional and multilateral fora was also discussed.
“Foreign Secretary reiterated the priority India attaches to its partnership with Myanmar in accordance with India's 'Neighborhood First' and 'Act East' policies. Both sides expressed satisfaction that despite the ongoing Covid pandemic, meetings in several areas, including power, energy have been held through virtual mode, reflecting the depth of the bilateral engagement,” said the statement by India's External Affairs Ministry. “It was noted that the next joint trade committee ministerial meeting to be held on October 20, will be useful in further strengthening bilateral trade and investment relations.”
Beyond the geopolitics of China, Myanmar also holds strategic importance for India as a gateway to the South East Asian economies. Bulk of India's investment in Myanmar has been towards upgrading infrastructure to facilitate greater connectivity which would then act as an enabler for boosting trade with ASEAN countries like Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and further on to Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. High profile projects such as the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway and Kaladan Multi modal Transit Transport (KMMTT) whereby the sea ports of Kolkata will be connected to Rakhine State's Sittwe deep water ports are geared towards that end.
The KMMTT is an essential part of India's broader policy in the Indian Ocean--Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) and would connect southwestern Myanmar to northeastern India through a multi-modal sea, river and road transport corridor.
But it does not end with the port alone. India wants to create a Special Economic Zone surrounding the Sittwe port in the Rakhine state which is of great strategic importance. It wants to develop it as a counter to another port in the region--the Kyaukpyu port which is backed by China.
The manner in which China has tried to increase its presence around India in countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, India's improved ties with Myanmar would be a counter punch to it and a payback in the same coin. Globally, Myanmar has seen its position take a 180 degree turn in the last decade. It was first wooed by the Western countries led by the US when it sought to partially democratise itself in 2011 which resulted lessened the influence and dependence on China. The Rohingya muslim crisis in 2016 however saw the US again distancing itself pushing Myanmar back into China's fold.
The retreat of the West along with Myanmar's overall discomfiture with its high dependence on China - its largest trading partner accounting for a quarter of its foreign investment, presents an opportunity for India to step in and expand its presence in a region country of high geopolitical significance. It's a chance that India seems willing to take.