The geostrategic significance of Myanmar intersects Chinese and Indian interests, and the contest between the two Asian giants over this would continue to shape the balance of power in this region.
Myanmar serves as a land bridge between India, East Asia and Southeast Asia. It also acts as a buffer state between India and China, who are at odds over border disputes.
Both the giants are at race, propelled by both economic and strategic security concerns, to enhance bilateral relationship with Myanmar.
China seems to be the closest strategic partner of Myanmar, but lack of trust has seeped in Naypyidaw due to Beijing’s nefarious design.
In the meantime, India has its unique strategic engagement with Myanmar, and lately military and bilateral ties between the two countries have immensely increased.
Between 2016 and 2020, friendship blossomed between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the Chinese leaders and China began extracting a large price by bagging big infrastructure projects in exchange for its guarantee “veto” at the UNSC.
During the National League for Democracy regime, China signed several MoUs for infrastructure projects, the largest being the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which was proposed by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during his visit to Myanmar in November 2017.
Also, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Myanmar capital Naypyidaw on January 17, 2020 during which he published a letter in the Myanmar press, stressing on progress on the three pillars of CMEC, namely the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone, the New Yangon City development and the China-Myanmar Border Economic Cooperation Zone.
A total investment of $100 billion was proposed.
Setting up of the Kyaukphyu Deep Sea Port and Special Economic Zone (SEZ) was aimed at minimising the dependence on the Straits of Malacca and making a new gateway to Southeast Asian countries.
Kyaukphyu gives China access to the Indian Ocean and is uncomfortably near the Andaman Islands. (The Chinese already have a lease of 50 years for the port and there is increasing fear that Myanmar may not be able to repay China for all the projects)
Lately, Myanmar started resisting China’s big ticket project.
Now, a question which arises frequently since the military coup in Myanmar on February 1, 2021, is — “Does the CMEC have a future?”
There is absolutely no doubt that Myanmar requires economic development. However, it is equally concerned about the rising influence of China, which gives rise to the debate over whether the CMEC projects would eventually serve Myanmar’s interests.
There have been a few articles sponsored by China that have tried to portray the CMEC as a win-win situation for everyone.
However, lack of transparency, non-participation of locals, anti-China sentiments, suspicion on the part of Tatmadaw, the official name of the armed forces of Myanmar, and impact on environment are critical factors that would affect the progress of CMEC.
Myanmar clearly stated that it will only implement those Chinese projects which will have mutual benefits.
Further, Myanmar had suspended two China-backed projects — rail project to link Muse with Mandalay, and the Myitsone Dam. The construction of the dam was suspended after widespread public concern.
Myanmar started to resist China after witnessing Beijing’s debt trap in Sri Lanka and Maldives and the subjugation of Pakistan through the Belt and Road Initiative.
Marred by mistrust with China, Myanmar has started looking towards India for investments and infrastructural development.
India and Myanmar have agreed to work together to promote the principles of openness, inclusiveness, transparency, and respect for international law.
On the other hand, India has realised that developing Myanmar is the gateway to the Southeast Asian countries.
Under its ‘Act East’ policy, India is now developing projects like Special Economic Zone at the Sittwe deep-water port, India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral highway and Kaladan Multi-modal transit transport network.
Chinese, Myanmar military relations
China has been supplying weapons and military equipment to Myanmar for long. According to Sweden-based think-tank Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Myanmar spent $1.3 billion to procure arms from China between 2010 and 2019. China also accounted for around 50 per cent of major arms imports from 2014-2019.
It consisted of a variety of things including radars, warships, combat and trainer aircraft, armed drones, armoured vehicles, and missiles, among others. China also supplied 90 per cent of military transport to Myanmar.
But lately, Tatmadaw is reaching out to Russia, India, Israel and other countries for supplies.
India, Myanmar military relationship
India and Myanmar signed a landmark defence cooperation agreement in July 2019, aimed at enhancing military training, joint surveillance and maritime security.
In 2020, India gave INS Sindhuvir, a submarine, to the Myanmar Navy. The military ties between India and Myanmar have reached a strategic level and both countries’ armies carry out joint operations against armed insurgents.
In 2019 and 2020, Indian and Myanmar armies conducted a mega operation to protect the Kaladan project near the Indian border. Also, military forces in Myanmar are carrying out operations against anti-India insurgents operating out of Myanmar.
To counter China’s growing influence in the region, India needs to evolve a policy that prioritises efficient delivery of projects in a timely manner. India also needs to enhance the economic and cultural connect between the two countries.
(Sumit Kumar Singh can be reached to email@example.com)