India and Burma are getting closer – and at a surprisingly rapid pace.
The latest phase of the India-Burma bonhomie came with the October 12 to 15 state visit of Burmese President U Thein Sein, who was paying his third visit to India in seven years, the last time being in November 2008, when he came calling to New Delhi as prime minister.
On October 14, Sein held comprehensive delegation-level talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Hyderabad House in New Delhi. Thein Sein reportedly came with at least a dozen cabinet ministers in tow, with the two high points of talks between the two leaders being that India announced a $500 million line of credit to Burma for specific projects, in addition to a $300 million line of credit already given. In addition, Singh was assured that the Burmese leadership wouldn’t allow its territory to be used against India in any manner, a prime national security concern for India.
The importance of Burma to India can’t be over emphasized. Burma is the only Southeast Asian state with which India has a long land boundary, which extends about 1,600 kilometres. Burma is therefore a vital bridge between South Asia and Southeast Asia, with four Indian states – Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram – sharing a land border with it.
The two leaders’ meeting was followed by a seven page Joint Statement containing 44 clauses, one of them relating to security and counter-terrorism cooperation. ‘Both sides reaffirmed their unequivocal and uncompromising position against terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. They agreed on enhancing effective cooperation and coordination between the security forces of the two countries in tackling the deadly menace of insurgency and terrorism…Both sides also underscored the need to strengthen institutional mechanisms for sharing of intelligence to combat the menace of insurgency, arms smuggling and drug trafficking. In this context, they discussed matters relating to further strengthening of border management mechanisms,’ the joint statement said.
In addition,the statement stated that an additional Land Customs Station/border trade point will be opened on the India-Burma border to allow for the smooth flow of goods generated by the multi-modal Kaladan Project. Also, the two sides decided to speed up the construction of the India-backed $120 million Sittwe deep water port, with a view to making it operational by June 2013.
China will likely view these close ties with concern, and strategists in Beijing are likely to see India’s moves as part of a zero-sum game in the region. The view from Delhi, though, is that China is being repaid for its so-called ‘string of pearls’ strategy of encircling India. Certainly the latest meeting comes at an awkward time for China, with Burma having riled Beijing by suspending a $3.6 billion China-driven dam project.