Of late, India’s engagement with its eastern neighbour Myanmar is quite dynamic and intensive. The new saffron Government led by Narendra Modi is quite enthusiastic in forging friendly, mutally beneficial diplomatic relations with Myanmar and other member countries of ASEAN.
India became a sectoral dialogue partner of ASEAN in 1992, and a full dialogue partner in 1996. Since 2002, annual Indo-ASEAN Summits were held. After the Commemorative Summit on December 20-21, 2012 in Delhi, India became a strategic partner of ASEAN. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is currently in Myanmar meeting scores of ASEAN leaders including Myanmar President U Thein Sein.
While India and ASEAN are finalizing the draft of the Indo-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement, Sushma Swaraj raised the issue of North East militants taking shelter inside Myanmarese territory. Acknowledging New Delhi’s concerns, U Thein Sein categorically stated that Myanmar will never allow its territory to be used for anything that is inimical to India’s interests. It appears Sushma Swaraj has manoeuvred a significant diplomatic victory. At the same time, New Delhi is actively pursuing a grand project of connecting India with Myanmar and Thailand by road through its Northeastern region. Such is the level of India’s engagement and involvement with/in the affairs of South East Asia. On the other side, China’s engagement with ASEAN even goes deeper. ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations commenced when H.E. Qian Qichen, the then Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China, attended the opening session of the 24th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in July 1991 in Kuala Lumpur. Subsequently, China was accorded full Dialogue Partner status in July 1996 in Jakarta. ASEAN and China had agreed to cooperate on eleven priority areas of cooperation, namely agriculture, information and communication technology, human resource development, Mekong Basin Development, investment, energy, transport, culture, public health, tourism and environment.
The rivalry between India and China, befittingly called Asian giants on account of their huge populations, territories and fast growing economies, is reflected most glaringly in their quest for consolidating diplomatic and strategic relations with ASEAN. The rivalry is rooted in their diverse geopolitics and intersecting economic interests. This has created a seemingly irreconcilable dichotomy between the two powers. Moreover, the dispute over the demarcation of their common frontier in the Himalayan foothills, from Kashmir in the West to Arunachal Pradesh in the East is ostensibly a source of serious tension in its own right. The simmering tension was there since the colonial era but it is not the primary cause of the new rivalry. The principal factor for the new rivalry is the disappearance of distance as a result of advancement in military technology. Despite significant improvement in bilateral relations, geopolitical rivalry for influence and domination is intensifying between the two Asian giants in the post-Cold War era. Nowhere is this contest for regional hegemony between China and India more evident than in Myanmar, which occupies a critical strategic position between the two countries. This can be gleaned from New Delhi’s vigorous engagement with Myanmar. India’s LEP vis-a-vis Myanmar is a two-pronged strategy. One is aimed at checking China’s growing influence over the neighbouring country and other is to tap the rich natural resources of Myanmar for Indian industries. How the North East would respond to this policy orientation of New Delhi is crucial to shape its future politico-economic destiny. India’s vigorous engagement with Myanmar will not leave the North East untouched. It will definitely make disheveling impression, a deep one which can also turn out to be a malignant scar. Being the gateway of India’s LEP, political leaders, intellectuals, journalists and civil society leaders of the region must study, examine and analyse the changing geopolitics of India, China as well as the response of ASEAN lest we are caught napping.
The Sangai Express