The Modi government has invested considerable diplomatic and strategic capital in cultivating ties with several groups of stakeholders in Myanmar. It needs its support to develop its North East and rein in insurgent groups. Welcome to new age Indian diplomacy.
The Government of India reacted very cautiously to the military takeover in Myanmar, saying it noted the developments there with deep concern. This is in sharp contrast to the US reaction, which called the takeover a “coup” and called for international solidarity in confronting Myanmar army’s move.
“The United States removed sanctions on Burma over the past decade based on progress toward democracy. The reversal of that progress will necessitate an immediate review of our sanction laws and authorities, followed by appropriate action,” a statement issued by US President Joe Biden said.
Two of the world’s greatest democracies reacted very differently to a military takeover in a country both consider a key strategic objective. Why?
The fact is that India and China are jockeying for influence in Myanmar and have to do business with whoever is in power there. China, like India, has not condemned the coup, calling, instead, for “all sides… (to) appropriately resolve their differences, and uphold political and social stability”.
The Indian response has been pragmatic while the US response, on the other hand, is more ideological, framed as it is as a push for democracy and a fight for human rights.
A senior retired Indian diplomat said: “Sanctions aren’t likely to work in the case of Myanmar because its economy doesn’t have as many linkages with global supply chains as many other countries. It, therefore, makes more sense to engage with the regime in power in order to achieve one’s goals.”
But India opposed Western efforts at the UN to take tough measures in response to the coup. India is a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. India supports democracy in Myanmar, and Aung Sang Suu Kyi, who is now under detention, but has to balance this with its economic and strategic interests in that country.
The Modi government’s early reactions indicate that it will follow its own interests rather than become part of a coalition of democracies against what has effectively emerged as a military dictatorship.
Both countries are facing a threat from the Arakan Army, which receives arms supplies and other support from China. This rebel group has kidnapped people working on the $484-million Kaladan project connecting Kolkata with the Sittwe seaport in Rakhine state in Myanmar by sea. In Myanmar, it will then link Sittwe seaport to Paletwa in Chin state via the Kaladan river, and then from Paletwa by road to Mizoram in India’s North East.
Then, Indian planners have noted that even as the Myanmar government has deferred or cancelled some projects under China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it is going ahead with the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral highway, and the planned Special Economic Zone at the Sittwe deep-water port along with the Kaladan Multi-modal transit transport network system.
These are important not only to the Modi government’s vision of developing the North East and developing it as a gateway to the prosperous ASEAN region to its south east, but as an outreach to the government and people of Myanmar.
The Modi government has invested considerable diplomatic and strategic capital in cultivating its ties with various stakeholders in that country with an eye on China’s strategy of encircling India with its “string of pearls” client states.
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The visit last October by Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla and Army chief General M.M. Naravane, though highly unusual in the context of India’s foreign policy paradigm was a recognition of the fact that even in Aung San Suu Kyi’s Myanmar, the military remained in charge of key departments such as Home, Defence and Border Affairs.
This followed the tour in 2017 of Senior General Min Aung Hlang, the person who led the recent coup, to Bodh Gaya, where he paid homage to Lord Buddha. On that occasion, he was received by then Army chief and current Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat. Later on that visit, he met Prime Minister Narendra Modi, then Defence Minister Arun Jaitley and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval – a clear signal that the Indian government was developing constituency in Myanmar beyond just the elected government.
Diplomatic circles in New Delhi noted with optimism Myanmar’s decision to use Made in India vaccines to counter the Covid threat even as the authorities there have kept the 300,000 doses of the Chinese vaccine in cold storage.
Thus, India’s interest and outreach to Myanmar is part of its larger Act East Policy that envisages close economic, diplomatic and strategic ties with neighbours to its east and south east.
Thus, India will continue to treat the military takeover as an internal matter of Myanmar and focus on countering China’s expansionist agenda in Asia.