With Myanmar, India is following a different path from China's
The recent India visit of Myanmar’s National Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi (her first official visit) was significant for a number of reasons that allowed both sides to send a clear message that they are keen to expand their relationship and not to look at the bilateral ties through a narrow lens.
Suu Kyi, who participated in the BRICS-BIMSTEC Summit in Goa, met Indian President Pranab Mukherjee, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.
While a lot of attention is paid to China-Myanmar relations, and some analysts highlighted the fact that Suu Kyi’s first overseas visit was to China and not India, statements by the Indian PM as well as Suu Kyi highlighted the special bond which Myanmar and India share.
There is no doubting the fact that in terms of economic presence in Myanmar, China is miles ahead of India. Indian investments for 2015-2016 were estimated at a little over $220 million while Chinese investment over the same period was a whopping $3 billion. It is thus virtually impossible for India to catch up with China in the short run.
India’s private sector companies like the Tata Group are expanding operations in Myanmar and realise the immense economic potential of the country, given its location as well as favourable demographics.
But resentment is building up in Myanmar against China, especially with regard to some of the projects — such as Myitsone dam — funded by it. And with the removal of sanctions, Myanmar would not be solely dependent upon China and already countries like Singapore and Japan are making their presence felt in Myanmar.
There are areas where India is in a better shape to assist Myanmar than China. Democracy is clearly a strong binding factor between both countries. An article in the Global Times (September 13, 2016) too acknowledged this point. Suu Kyi, during her India visit from October 16-19, 2016, dubbed India as the ‘greatest democracy in the world’ and said Myanmar could learn from India’s Lok Sabha and other legislative bodies.
An article in Global Times (September 16, 2016) in fact argues that: “In years to come, the Myanmarese government might have more expectations in India over economic and trade cooperation, defence collaboration and joint works to expand connectivity with neighbouring countries.” (http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1006328.shtml)
Prime Minister Modi, on his part, praised Suu Kyi for her vision for Myanmar, stating that India would back her efforts. Myanmar being India’s gateway to South East Asia is crucial for India’s ‘Act East Policy’, yet the Indian PM sent a clear message that India has a long-term interest in Myanmar’s progress and prosperity.
Apart from this, the Indian PM categorically stated that India is keen to assist the country in key sectors like healthcare and would like to contribute towards capacity-building in the country. Three agreements were signed during Suu Kyi’s visit between the two neighbours — in the power sector, banking supervision (between Reserve Bank of India and Central Bank of Myanmar) and for setting up an academic programme for the insurance sector.
India also offered assistance for setting up a seed farm in Yezin, Myanmar. The Indian PM also offered to increase the power supply from Moreh (Manipur) to Tamu (Myanmar) and offered Indian assistance for setting up an LED plant in Myanmar.
PM Modi, while speaking about deepening ties between both countries, also said: “From mega connectivity projects like Kaladan and Trilateral Highway, to projects in the fields of human resource development, healthcare, training and capacity-building, we are sharing our resources and expertise with Myanmar.”
This statement was significant because New Delhi needs to dispel the impression that it only looks at the country as a gateway to South East Asia or as a market.
Both sides also sought to deepen security ties, by strengthening cooperation along the borders. Suu Kyi, on her part, criticised the recent terror attack in Uri, in Jammu & Kashmir, and expressed solidarity with the families of the victims. Both sides condemned terrorism in all its manifestations.
India is following a different path from China, and has not restricted itself to just trade and investment. It should seek to further help Myanmar in creating robust institutions, while expediting connectivity projects and expanding both economic ties and people-to-people contacts.
Both India and Myanmar agreed to set up immigration facilities at the Tamu-Moreh and Rhi-Zowkhathar border crossing points with the objective of facilitating regulated but smooth movement of people across the land borders for tourism as well as business. Such steps will not just benefit bilateral ties with Myanmar and India’s Act East Policy but also India’s North-East region which for long has been neglected.
India cannot ignore what Beijing does in Myanmar, or for that matter any other neighbouring country, but it should be confident of its own strengths, and also work on filling in the gaps.
The statements of both Aung San Suu Kyi and Narendra Modi send a clear message that both sides are keen to expand the relationship, and not to look at the bilateral relationship from a narrow lens. The consolidation of democracy in Myanmar, accompanied by robust economic growth, will help in dispelling the myth of authoritarian set-ups being more effective. India, without sermonising to Myanmar, should contribute positively towards strengthening its democracy.