28 September 2012
Over the past year, New Delhi has had to contend with numerous foreign policy challenges. The relationship with Pakistan and the likely outcomes of NATO's 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan are the main causes of concern for New Delhi’s foreign policy mandarins, as far as South Asia is concerned. Beyond South Asia, there are important priorities such as the relationship with China, striking a balance the Washington-Tehran relationship, and last but not least, India has to ensure its presence is felt in South East Asia, and that its role in organizations such as ASEAN and the Mekong Ganga Basin is taken seriously.
It would be unfair to say that New Delhi has fared poorly on the foreign policy front. On the contrary, the UPA government under the aegis of Dr. Manmohan Singh has been reasonably successful in taking pro-active steps on all the fronts discussed above. This in spite of a plethora of problems the government has had to face domestically, most significantly the myriad of corruption scandals and inefficiency.
Along with the above priorities, India needs to ensure that it does not lose sight of Myanmar. The country (also known as Burma) is growing in importance for a number of reasons, most notably its strategic location as not only as new battleground in the East, but also as India’s bridge to South East Asia; last but not least, it is a country with immense economic opportunities, which India is easily in a position to benefit from as a consequence of geographical location and historical ties.
In this context, the visit of Dr. Manmohan Singh in May 2012 to Myanmar was a solid beginning. Symbolically, the visit was extremely important since the last Prime Minister to visit that country was the late Rajiv Gandhi, making Dr. Singh's visit arrive after a hiatus of 25 years.
Dr. Singh’s visit to Myanmar was important for more than one reason. First, obviously a number of agreements were signed between the two countries – a dozen, to be precise. The most significant of the 12 were those focused on closer strategic ties between the two countries: increasing bilateral trade, energy cooperation, enhancing the level of connectivity between India and Myanmar through land and air, giving a push to people to people contact, and finally greater cooperation between universities and think-tanks of both countries.
Second, he was accompanied by a high-powered delegation of Indian businessmen, which included Sunil Bharti Mittal, group CEO of Bharti Enterprises. While all eyes are on the entry of Indian energy giants such as ONGC and GAIL into Myanmar, other companies such as Tata Motors and Sonalika have made significant forays into Myanmar. Tata Motors inked an agreement in May with Apex Greatest Industrial Co Ltd.(AGI), Myanmar, for distributing Tata’s commercial and passenger vehicles in Myanmar. Sonalika, the tractor manufacturer entered the Myanmar market by tying up with the M/s. Farmers Choice Tractors Co. Ltd, and setting up the Sonalika Tractors and implements distributorship in September 2011.
Third, Dr. Singh very astutely dispelled the notion that India’s interest in Myanmar was merely a reaction to China’s increasing presence there. The Indian Prime Minister categorically stated that Myanmar can be a bridge between India and China, this clearly sent the message that India was confident about its engagement with Myanmar.
Finally, by meeting Aung San Suu Kyi, General Secretary of the National League for Democracy and Member of Parliament, Dr. Singh struck a fine balance between realism and idealism, sending a clear message that while New Delhi had to engage with the current regime, it had to keep its lines of communication open with those who have been part of the democratic struggle in the country.
However, it is imperative to ensure that a good beginning does not go waste, and India does not lose out to other countries which have been more forceful in pushing through projects. India’s past record has been unenviable in both South Asia and Myanmar itself, something China has taken advantage of.
Not only has China implemented its projects briskly, but even other countries, including Thailand and Japan, are taking their investments and projects seriously. The President of Myanmar Thein Sein visited Thailand in July to take stock of Thai investments in infrastructure, agriculture, and the Dawei Port. Thailand is already the second largest investor in Myanmar, having pumped in nearly $10 million since April 2012. Tokyo's seriousness is evident from the investment being carried out by a Japanese consortium consisting of Mitsubishi Corp, Marubeni Corp, and Sumitomo Corp in a Special Economic Zone being set up in Yangon. The Japanese financial sector too is providing assistance to Myanmar in a big way: Daiwa Securities Group has agreed to help Myanmar develop a stock exchange.
India needs to ensure that its pace of engagement does not slacken, and would do well to learn from countries such as Thailand and Japan. New Delhi also needs to be careful that the any number of issues do not impede its inroads into Myanmar.
First, the tense situation in Assam has obliterated other priorities of the North East, and it is possible that the distress in Assam may obliterate other important priorities in the region, especially ungrading infrastructure at border posts in both Arunachal and Manipur. The border infrastructure is abysmal at both Moreh (Manipur) and Champhai (Mizoram). While trade between India and Myanmar has witnessed an increase over the last five years, and is estimated at US$1.3 billion, only a negligible percentage of this--less than one percent--is through Moreh. Poor infrastructural development on the Indian side is also responsible for the delay of the Imphal-Mandalay bus. In stark contrast to India, China has been quick to connect its Yunnan province with Myanmar and converted the former, which was not particularly developed, into an economic hub. In fact, the destination of the Myanmar-China pipeline is close to Kunming town in Yunnan.
Second, domestic political problems and other foreign policy priorities should not be allowed to overshadow important policy decisions pertaining to Myanmar.
This is the time when New Delhi needs to keep an eye on all these developments in Myanmar and continue to increase its clout in different ways.
First, New Delhi should find common cause with Thailand, since it shares cordial relations and common interests. Other countries are also jointly exploring opportunities in Myanmar. For example, a Phillipines company SL Agritech corp has signed a deal with both Thailand and Myanmar for developing and selling rice in Asia. Indian companies could also look at such opportunities. To begin with, Indian and Thai companies could partner in the Dawei port project, which Thailand is very interested in, especially since it will connect Chennai with the Dawei Sea Port in Myanmar and Laem Chambang Port in Thailand. Some discussions have already taken place and it remains to be seen what happens.
Second, there should be more emphasis on people-to-people contact and students from Myanmar should be encouraged to study at Indian universities. India should learn its lessons from SAARC, where it has been extremely slow at taking the right initiatives vis-à-vis other countries in South Asia. While New Delhi has already committed itself to setting up an IIT and a high class agricultural institute, it should set up scholarships for students from Myanmar. For both purposes, the Mekong Ganga Basin is an excellent platform, as Thailand and Myanmar both are members of the organization. The decisions taken at the recent ministerial level meeting held at New Delhi for accelerating the pace of work on the Indo-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral and extending it up to Cambodia as well as the proposal for India-Myanmar-Lao PDR-Viet Nam-Cambodia, and for enhancing people-to-people contact is a welcome step.
Third, India itself should from time to time do a serious appraisal of important projects, such as the Kaladan multi-modal project which is imperative for connecting India’s mainland to its North-East, so that there is no further delay in implementation.
Fourth, perhaps it is time that India allowed states greater leeway in the economic realm, as China has, while not letting the guard down on the security front. To that extent, exchange of delegations between states of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, and other border states with Myanmar are necessary for strengthening India’s presence and increasing linkages between the North-East. A recent visit by a business delegation from Arunachal Pradesh, headed by the state’s agriculture minister, visited Mandalay and met politicians and businessmen. Apart from exploring business opportunities, possibilities for greater people-to-people contact were also discussed.
Fifth, the efforts of chambers of commerce are important. A proposal by the Indian Chamber of Commerce, which has helped India push bilateral trade with Bangladesh, to push for greater trade between the North East and Myanmar is indeed welcome and a its idea of setting up a trade promotion office at Guwahati would give a thrust to this.
Finally, increasing the pace of improving infrastructure and the quality of the Integrated Check Post at Moreh will not disappoint.
It would indeed be a pity if India cannot make a success of its forays into Myanmar, since it has inherent advantages. Cultural linkages between both countries which date back to centuries, with Buddhism off course being one of the strongest links. Also, Myanmar is in the process of making a transition from a military rule to open democracy, and there is no better example for Myanmar in the region than India. India can understand the ethos of Myanmar better than the West, and therefore can play a key role in helping it set up democratic institutions.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based writer and independent foreign policy analyst.