India-China make a Myanmar tryst

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August 6, 2013:  As India and China have emerged as major powers in Asia, their interests and concerns have transcended their geographical boundaries.

There is particularly the case in Myanmar, where those interests have converged. This is largely due to the fact that Myanmar shares common borders with both the countries. Myanmar shares a 2,185-kilometer border with China, and 1,643-kilometer border with India.

It has long been argued that Myanmar has always been a strategic concern for governing the dynamics of India-China relations. Myanmar's strategic location is considered as an important asset for India and China that offers tremendous opportunities for the countries of the region. Therefore, recent developments in Myanmar are a matter of concern for both India and China.

China's role in Myanmar is decisive as it is one of the country's largest trading partners (India stands at fourth) and its biggest source of foreign investment. There has been an enormous growth in China's influence in Myanmar, significantly, after Western sanctions were implemented in 1989.

China is investing heavily in developing ports in Myanmar, gaining greater access to the Indian Ocean. Furthermore, support from China has been crucial to Myanmar in diplomatic fora such as the United Nations Security Council. Beijing is investing heavily in infrastructure, mining projects, hydropower dams and oil-and-gas pipelines to help feed southern China's growing energy needs.

It is noteworthy that Myanmar occupies a critical space on China's south-western flank. It is important as a trading outlet to the Indian Ocean for its landlocked inland provinces of Yunnan. Yunnanese companies are big investors in mining, rubber and other industries in the bordering state of Kachin in Myanmar. Thus, officials in Yunnan have a keen interest in Myanmar keeping the ethnic clashes in its border states calm. Hence, China's Myanmar policy has been dictated to a large extent by what will help Yunnan's economy move forward.

Meanwhile, however, the new reformist regime in Myanmar considers India as a land of opportunity. It has been characterized as a benign power and an alternative force, given the competitions that exist from the existing players and other potential stakeholders.

The key drivers of the India-Myanmar strategic relationship are cooperation in counter-insurgency operations and the need for India to ensure that Myanmar is not driven into "area of influence" of any other power in the region through Indian neglect of its security concerns.

Indian insurgent groups from the northeastern states consider Myanmar a safe haven. Similarly, the rebels from these areas in Myanmar take refuge in the bordering areas of Indian Territory. Therefore, it is in the interests of both countries to cooperate with each other to fight these insurgent groups in a coordinated manner similar to China's approach of solving its problem of the Yunnan province in its southwest border.

Given that Indian and Chinese interests overlap in Myanmar, building up the rail-road connectivity is high in the priority lists of both the countries for their land locked provinces at the borders. Myanmar acts as a major source of energy for the rising population of both the countries.

Strategically, India and China both believe that strengthened ties with Myanmar are the key to dominance in the Indo-Pacific region.

Regime transformation and changed dynamics
There is a third force at work - the United States. Chinese officials and media have expressed concern over Washington's renewed interest in Myanmar. There is an apprehension that a democratic Myanmar will become a pro-US Myanmar. Although President Thein Sein's visit to United States raised hopes for increased cooperation and commerce, nonetheless, he has since reaffirmed that Myanmar's transition to democracy will not change the country's traditional friendship with China.

China and Myanmar have also agreed to continue to strengthen communication and coordination to accelerate the formulation of mid-term and long-term goals of bilateral exchanges in politics, economy, trade, culture, security and other areas to steadily push forward comprehensive cooperation.

Despite the recent setbacks to Chinese investments in Myanmar, Beijing's economic presence in the country continues to grow with the inauguration of the gas pipeline. The pipeline will be transporting about 12 billion cubic meters of gas across Myanmar and into the southern Chinese province of Yunnan.

It also plans to build a highway and a high speed railway line by 2015 that would allow people and cargo to travel from Kyaukpyu passing through Mandalay to Yunnan. This would later be connected to Chittagong in Bangladesh, thus joining up Yunnan to Bangladesh via Myanmar through a tri-nation highway.

Chinese companies are also developing special economic zones and power plants and devising strategies for building a deepwater commercial seaport at Kyaukpyu's natural harbor. The two sides have also conducted feasibility study for construction of Ruili-Kyaukpyu road that would act as China-Myanmar corridor. This would satisfy China's need for energy security as well as link to Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean and beyond.

Though, China and India have competing security and economic interests in Myanmar, there has not been any direct confrontation or threat to national interest of both the countries there. Nevertheless, since the southeast Asian country's first elections in November 2010, both Chinese and Indian officials have strengthened their hand with a deep confidence of gaining much more from the new regime.

In this perspective Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is wise when he observes that "China and India should not seek cooperation from afar with a ready partner at hand." He further adds, "Political trust is the precondition for friendship and cooperation ... But a few clouds in the sky cannot shut out the brilliant sun-rays of our friendship".

Bridging the trust deficit and recognizing the convergences may unleash new potential for development for both India and China in Myanmar.


Asia Times