Any prime ministerial visit from India to a neighboring country is full of strategic significances. But perhaps no such country is as crucial for Indian calculations right now as Burma. Why? Well, of course, there are the socio-economic and bilateral trade ties to think about. But perhaps more than anything, policymakers in New Delhi believe there’s one other factor that arguably trumps all – China.
China’s economic and strategic footprints in Southeast Asia have been planted on the basis of its connectivity with the region, an area where India lags far behind. But India has recently taken a significant step forward in correcting this with the just-concluded state visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The importance of this visit, and the problems that have bedeviled India-Burma bilateral relations, are highlighted by the fact that Singh is the first Indian prime minister in a quarter of a century to visit Burma. Rajiv Gandhi was the first Indian prime minister to visit Burma, doing so way back in 1987.
In many ways, Singh’s visit was a success even before it began. Indeed, the question was never really whether the visit would be successful, but why it took India so long to plan a top-level visit to Burma? It’s hard to see how India could put its neighbor on the foreign policy backburner when it shares a more than 1,600 kilometer border with the country and when 2.5 million people of Indian origin, by some estimates, live in Burma. In addition, Burma can offer much-needed gas from among its vast natural resources to energy hungry India?
So, what did Singh achieve? For a start, India has dramatically improved its relations with both the country’s military rulers and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. These two sides have been at loggerheads for decades, but on the initiative of President Thein Sein a true national reconciliation process appears to have begun. Singh has also reportedly extended an invitation to Suu Kyi to travel to India later this year, an invitation she is said to have accepted.
The second major deliverable has been on land connectivity, something that should have improved between the two neighbors decades ago, but which never did. India and Burma decided during Singh’s visit to give a fillip to land connectivity and, for the first time, the two sides called for a deadline for achieving this. Singh and Thein Sein announced their decision to embark on an ambitious project that would help establish trilateral connectivity from Moreh in India to Mae Sot in Thailand, via Burma, by 2016. This will allow tourists to travel between India and Thailand using the much cheaper land route via Burma.
Singh and Thein Sein announced that India would repair and upgrade 71 bridges on the Tamu- Kalewa friendship Road and upgrade the Kalewa-Yargyi road segment to highway standard, the Economic Times reported, while Burma pledged to upgrade the Yargyi-Monywa stretch to highway standard by 2016. The moribund Joint Task Force on the Trilateral Highway between India-Burma-Thailand has also been revived.
In addition, the two sides have decided to launch a trans-border bus service between Imphal (India) and Mandalay (Burma), the Asian Age notes. There’s no time frame for this yet, but Singh and Thein Sein directed their respective officials to work to enable its early operationalization, a measure that would substantially boost people-to-people contacts.
Singh’s Burma visit has the potential to be a real game changer, not least by offering India greater strategic leverage vis-à-vis China. After all, Burma has long been a vassal state for China, but has signaled that it is no longer keeping all of its eggs in one basket. Burma’s recent suspension of its massive China-funded hydel dam project was a sign last year of the shifting winds.
India has the capacity – and now the political will – to match China step by step in Burma. India’s bilateral annual trade with Burma is an estimated $1.4 billion, but there’s considerable potential for massively boosting this. Publicly, China has welcomed Singh’s Burma visit. But privately, Chinese strategists will likely be extremely concerned.