The Indian army’s cross-border strike against insurgents over the border with Myanmar has received significant attention over the past few weeks. Lost amidst the debates about the rise of a potential new Indian ‘doctrine’ and endless details about the operation itself has been the effect that such incidents – as well as the posturing that results from them – can have on the relationship between New Delhi and Naypyidaw. Indeed, an assessment of the overall Indo-Myanmar relationship suggests the need for greater Indian humility, rather than hubris, in its relationship with its Southeast Asian neighbor.
By focusing too much on the operation itself, some have missed two valuable points. First, India-Myanmar ties have reached a strategic depth. This alignment is based on a new understanding of shifting inter-regional geopolitics and a shared sense of security challenges as a result of years of efforts from both India and Myanmar. While Naypyidaw is incrementally turning away from its most important partner – China – its engagement with India is a strategic gain for the latter and a positive gesture from its ASEAN neighbor. In a display of strategic quid pro quo, Indian assistance to Myanmar against the Kachin has reportedly won Myanmar’s support against the Naga insurgents.
Second, Myanmar is a willing and active partner in this new alignment. Its willingness to put high stakes in its relationship with India should not be seen as rising India’s geopolitical entitlement. The cross-border counter-insurgency collaboration was a sovereign state’s overture for giving strategic depth to bilateral relations rather than a small power giving in to pressure from a great power. India and Myanmar had engaged in similar counter-insurgency collaboration against the ULFA insurgents in 1995 known as ‘Operation Golden Bird.’ India was hardly a rising great power then.
Myanmar’s importance in India’s strategic thinking cannot be overstated. Beyond the generally stable relationship both countries share, Naypyidaw also provides vital strategic space in mainland Southeast Asia and connects India’s Northeast with industrializing ASEAN economies. India has been trying for many years to have access to huge energy resources in Myanmar. In fact, the cross-border collaboration arguably underscores how much New Delhi can achieve if it gets its Myanmar policy right. It also serves as a reminder that any attempt to unravel it may cost New Delhi dearly. For instance, given India’s insurgency problem in the Northeast, another dry spell of two decades may not be advisable.
The recent jubilation actually becomes a matter of ridicule when compared to the long list of incomplete, abandoned and unsuccessful Indian initiatives in Myanmar. India’s limited progress is primarily an outcome of lead-actor inertia and inefficiency, and lost opportunities in building strategic capital in Myanmar. Some of them need to be highlighted here for sobering effect.
First, various cross-border connectivity initiatives have suffered from cost overruns and time lags. It took India eight years to complete a 100-mile Friendship Road and that remains only success so far. Other projects, such as the India-Myanmar Thailand Trilateral Highway, the Delhi-Hanoi railway, and the Kaladan multi-modal project (road and river networks) remain incomplete. Their deadlines have already been pushed back several times. The long-awaited Imphal-Mandalay bus route, proposed for the first time in 2009, could also suffer the same fate. Moreover, India’s own Northeast remains poorly connected with its borders. Indeed, there is only one national highway – NH 39 – that effectively connects India’s Northeast to its border.
Second, notwithstanding two decades of efforts, cross-border trade has not increased. The total trade volume of nearly a million dollars along the border of 1021 miles appears disappointingly low when compared with the bilateral trade of more than $2 billion in 2014. Besides, the poor quality of trade-facilitating infrastructure at the border makes India look like it is stuck in a 20th century time warp.
Third, the saga of India-Myanmar collaboration in the energy sector is well known. India’s failure in securing the marketing rights of oil and gas from Myanmar in 2007 highlighted – aside from China’s growing clout over the decision-makers of Myanmar – New Delhi’s own bureaucratic inefficiency, lack of inter-departmental coordination and its inability to negotiate a deal with Bangladesh. Both India and Myanmar have also abandoned two hydroelectricity projects on the Chindwin River in Myanmar. Myanmar’s rejection of these projects is a reminder that India’s strategic capital in Myanmar cannot be taken for granted.
Fourth, one can notice similar set of lead-actor inertia and challenges in terms of Indian attempts to give momentum to plurilateral cooperative initiatives with Myanmar at the center. India has launched a series of sub-regional, inter-regional, and trilateral cooperative initiatives during the last 18 years. These are BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral, Technical and Economic Cooperation) since 1997, MGC (Mekong-Ganga Cooperation) since 2000 and India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Cooperation since 2003. None of them seems to have made a major headway. For instance, though BIMSTEC represents two-fifths of the most impoverished people of the world, it has failed to take any initiative to discuss the current refugee crisis that has unfolded in the Bay of Bengal in May 2015. This is despite the fact that BIMSTEC’s members includes Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand, the three most affected countries in the refugee crisis.
Last but not the least is the plight of the politically disempowered and socially marginalized Indian diaspora in Myanmar. Many of the Muslims caught in the Buddhist-Muslim crossfire in important cities of Myanmar are of Indian origin. Rising India has yet to address the problems of Indian diaspora, notwithstanding the Modi government’s much-vaunted diaspora policy.
Given all this, India would do well to show some humility instead of hubris in its relationship with Myanmar. Demonstrating insensitivity towards its Southeast Asian neighbor through incidents like the cross-border strike is misplaced, unwarranted and strategically offsetting. If India wants to have a better relationship with Myanmar and see its Act East policy succeed, it should start by acting with a little more consideration for Naypyidaw.
Vibhanshu Shekhar is Asia Fellow at East West Center, Washington DC and Adjunct Faculty at ASEAN Studies Center, School of International Service, American University.