25 August 2016

India’s stake in Myanmar remains strong

By Liu Zongyi 

Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi concluded her visit to China on Sunday. After her China tour last year, The Nikkei published an article arguing that if Suu Kyi is in power, India's position in Myanmar's diplomacy will outweigh China, and Myanmar may shift its diplomatic focus from its east side to west. Suu Kyi's latest formal visit, the first outside ASEANafter her taking office, shows that China seems to be more significant than India in Myanmar's diplomacy. Yet in June, Suu Kyi expressed her wish to visit India during her meeting with V.K. Singh, India minister of state for external affairs.

Suu Kyi has chosen China for her first overseas trip outside ASEAN probably not because she is emotionally close to Beijing, but out of Myanmar's domestic politics and national interests. She will lead the country to seek a balance among major powers.

Like China, India is one of few countries that kept a close relationship with the Myanmese government during the military rule. Yet Suu Kyi was never a fan of New Delhi's dual-track policy - supporting democratic forces and meanwhile having close ties with the military junta. She believes that India, the largest democratic country in the world, should not have kept a distance from Myanmar's democratic forces during the latter's democratization.

The ties between Myanmar and India are full of peculiarity, complexity, and versatility due to historical connections. As they face problems including border disputes, cross-border ethnic minorities and Indians in Myanmar, their relations have been far from smooth. But for Myanmar, enhancing ties with India can help counterbalance China's influence in Myanmar and also develop its economy by using Indian investment.

Myanmar is quite special in Indian diplomacy. Due to its location, Myanmar is considered by India as a buffer state between it and China and therefore cannot be controlled by major powers like China.

Besides, Myanmar is a crucial link to Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor, and has worked jointly with China on oil and natural gas pipelines and port construction. India is thus worried that Myanmar may become a convenient corridor for China to come and go in the Indian Ocean, which can hence threaten India's national security and its peculiar interests in the waters.

Myanmar is also a gateway for India's Look East Policy toward both East Asia and Southeast Asia. Connectivity between the two is therefore crucial to a stronger economic, political and cultural relationship between India and ASEAN. As there are a large number of cross-border ethnic groups and rebels from Northeast India have military bases in Myanmar, relations with Myanmar matter a lot to the security of Northeast India.

Moreover, Myanmar, which has abundant oil and natural gas, is important to India that suffers energy shortages. With Myanmar's economic reforms and the lifting of the West's economic sanctions, the Myanmese market has become far more attractive to Indian companies.

Compared with China, India has advantages in developing relations with Myanmar. They share a lot in culture, religion and democratic values, and their high-level officials have had close relationship for a very long time. For instance, Suu Kyi's mother used to be Myanmar's ambassador to India. Suu Kyi spent her adolescence in the country and graduated from University of Delhi. Apart from that, many other democratic activists have been supported and protected by India.

Nevertheless, the Myanmese people have strong sense of self-esteem and independence. They stick to the five principles of peaceful coexistence, pursue a non-aligned independent international status and hope to develop friendly relation with all countries, especially with their neighbors. As a pragmatic statesperson, Suu Kyi will lead the country to balance among powers like the US, Japan, China and India and maximize the country's interests, without completely tilting to any side. 

China's consistent policy in developing friendly relations with Myanmar will not change easily due to the latter's changes in ruling parties or leaderships. There have been some fluctuations in the Sino-Myanmese relationship over the past few years due to numerous reasons. The bilateral exchanges seldom reach out to the public while the cross-border smuggling and illegal trade of Chinese companies have eroded Myanmese people's interests and their attitude toward China. Some West-funded NGOs in Myanmar have also instigated anti-China sentiment.

China needs to learn the lessons these things teach. The Chinese government must keep contact with both Myanmar's government and people. Beijing should also increase guidance for non-governmental organizations abroad and student exchanges to promote people-to-people exchanges and boost the friendship between the two sides.

The author is a senior fellow of Shanghai Institutes for International Studies and a visiting fellow of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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