India racing to catch up with China's well-established Myanmar ties

By Jagannath Panda Source:Global Times Published: 2012-8-13 18:30:00

Illustration: Sun Ying
Illustration: Sun Ying

With politics in Myanmar rising to a new level and the military-backed new government searching for international acknowledgement, the race for energy resources in Myanmar seems to have become wide open for many powers like India and China. 

Myanmar accounts for the world's 10th largest natural gas reserves, with over 90 trillion cubic feet spread over 19 onshore and three main offshore fields, which has brought oil companies from China, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam to Myanmar to search for energy resources.

India shares strong traditional and cultural bonds with Myanmar. New Delhi currently designs its Myanmar policy within its overall Look East policy, wherein Myanmar is an important strategic neighbor to help India's broader ASEAN reach.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said during his visit to Myanmar in late May, the first by an Indian prime minister for 25 years, that India and Myanmar are "natural partners."

Ranjan Mathai, India's Foreign Secretary, recently stated that New Delhi wants to capitalize on a "stronger and mutually beneficial relationship with a neighboring country [Myanmar] that is integral to India's Look East policy."

Most notably, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the pro-democratic movement in Myanmar, may likely tour India soon.

But the Chinese presence in Myanmar is also a big strategic factor for India. India is concerned about China's rising reach in Myanmar, where there has long been a soft competition between the two Asian giants.

Both have similar policy interests in that country. Whichever nation outsmarts the other in capturing Myanmar's resources will also enjoy the strategic advantage for the neighboring sea route politics for energy and oil resources.

Myanmar can provide direct access to the Indian Ocean via the Bay of Bengal in the west and the Andaman Sea in the south.

China's naval bases and ports along the critical ends in the Indian Ocean are already a concern for India, though India's reach in Myanmar is much wider than China's.

India's immediate policy planning is aimed at establishing a good set of networks between India's eastern region with the adjoining areas of Myanmar through closer commercial and infrastructure linkages.

After Singh's visit to Myanmar, India and Myanmar began a new set of initiatives. For example, the two countries have planned a bus service between Imphal in Manipur and Mandalay in Myanmar.

Pushing the trade and commercial contacts is another prime objective. Though current bilateral trade is only $1.3 billion, it is planned to rise to $3 billion by 2015.

Given the potential of Myanmar's natural resources and India's economic strength, closer trade and commercial relations can be a boon for bilateral relationship.

New Delhi has offered around $800 million in credit to Myanmar to help infrastructure developments in areas like roads, waterways and railways. India's planned port at Sittwe is expected to act as a doorway between Southeast Asia and India.

Pragmatism is currently foremost in India's Myanmar policy. Though India believes that there is enough scope for India-Myanmar relationship to grow, the bilateral relations still remain at a low key compared to Myanmar's relations with China.

China's relationship with Myanmar's military-backed government has been quite comprehensive and well implemented.

Besides, the structure of ASEAN and Southeast Asian politics is too sensitive to be overlooked by India in its interaction with Myanmar.

Myanmar is an important gateway country in ASEAN and Southeast Asian politics.

India's design toward Myanmar goes beyond approaching a common neighbor, as it remains an entry gate for India to the regional power politics.

The author is research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

Posted in: Critical Voices

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