As an ascendant economic and political power, India has long been eager to assert its influence on the global stage, particularly in neighboring Southeast Asia. India’s intentions for foreign engagement are best articulated in its so-called Act East policy, an ambitious effort to elevate Indian influence via economic and strategic links with the subregion.
Central to New Delhi’s strategic aims is the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar, a gateway to connecting India to the rest of the subregion. Yet despite steps toward implementing its policy, there seems to be little focused engagement with Myanmar. Indeed, India must begin to formulate a cohesive and coherent strategy to execute, particularly in light of China’s rapid progress on its Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), if it hopes to realize the fullest potential of its Act East policy.
The Look East policy, which preceded the Act East variant heard today, was first proposed and developed during the administration of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao. Despite this ambitious plan, subsequent efforts did not manifest into what many hoped to be a vigorous Indian foreign engagement, and ultimately failed to perform what some saw as the intended counterbalance to burgeoning Chinese influence within Southeast Asia.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled India’s response in an attempt to revive its initial agenda: the Act East policy. The reinvigorated policy, revealed in November 2014 at the annual Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, represented India’s version of a recharged pivot to Asia. Indeed, the rebranded name alone inspires a markedly more proactive approach, an orientation that Modi emphasized in a pledge toward “cooperation in advancing balance, peace, and stability in the region.”
Myanmar has played a key role in India’s regional initiatives. While hosting a state banquet in August 2016 for visiting Myanmar President U Htin Kyaw, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee confirmed that Myanmar remains first on India’s horizon for the Act East policy and that he hoped the two nations could work together in “achieving [the] shared vision of stability, peace, and progress in the region.”
Mukherjee’s description of Myanmar as India’s gateway to ASEAN could not be more fitting. Among the ten states of ASEAN, Myanmar is the only nation that India shares both a land and maritime border with. Infrastructural links connecting India to mainland Southeast Asia must inevitably transverse through Myanmar. Further bonding the two countries is an enduring sense of kinship rooted in a shared heritage of ethnic, linguistic, and religious ties, as well as a shared colonial past.
Yet despite New Delhi’s rebranded rhetoric and Myanmar’s apparent relevance to regional designs, India has yet to adequately engage with its Southeast Asian neighbor. In the last fiscal year, India did not even rank among the top five countries by foreign investment in Myanmar. A 1,400 kilometer long highway beginning from India’s Meghalaya and continuing through Myanmar and Thailand has been continuously delayed. With an original completion date of 2014, officials now estimate that that the highway will be completed in 2020.
Similarly, the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project (KMTTP) in western Myanmar has experienced multiple setbacks. The KMPTTP installation aims to connect the landlocked Indian state of Mizoram to the Bay of Bengal and the foundational framework was first signed in 2008. At the end of the first quarter of 2017 – nearly ten years later – the overland road still does not connect to Mizoram.
Myanmar’s adjacent proximity and geostrategic significance demand it play a defining linchpin role in any coherent strategy of Indian-ASEAN engagement. Expediting previously announced cross-border development projects, including irrigation and railway plans, is crucial. Both nations are stakeholders in these projects; a porous border with enhanced commercial ties and improved infrastructure will benefit the relatively less developed northeastern states of India and western region of Myanmar. Encouraging the growth of such a connectivity corridor will lend itself to greater Act East regional goals. The planned trilateral India-Myanmar-Thailand highway and the KMTTP project will be better assisted with the establishment of an already flourishing economic partnership across the border.
China’s growing presence casts a shadow on Indian-Myanmar relations. In many ways, India has played a distant secondary role to China’s outsized influence. As of March 2017, China remained Myanmar’s largest foreign investor, with permitted enterprises valued at over $18.5 billion, a figure that eclipses India’s total investments of $2 billion. Ongoing BRI related operations reflect China’s prominence. India has denounced China’s BRI initiatives and its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), seeing it as undermining its own national security. Myanmar, however, supports the BRI, was a founding member of AIIB, and related initiatives have launched in the country, including an oil and gas pipeline allowing Mideast crude to be pumped through Myanmar to China’s Yunnan province and the development of a deep seaport special economic zone at Kyauk Phyu. Meanwhile, India’s own plans to develop the Sittwe special economic zone located in the KMTTP have been mired in delays, characteristic of New Delhi’s efforts.
If New Delhi aspires to strengthen its clout and integrate Myanmar into regional designs, it must embrace a more assertive approach. India should also be prepared to take advantage of Myanmar’s cautious and wary approach to Chinese investment and present itself as a neighbor with similar democratic ideals and a shared heritage, and an opportunity for alternative avenues of economic development.
At the same time, India should not view opportunities in Myanmar as a zero-sum game. Connectivity projects may present channels for both China and India to collaborate to constructively improve Myanmar’s infrastructure, mitigate financial burdens, and strengthen relations. Identified areas of common ground within the BRI and Indian interests in Myanmar can boost trilateral ties and ultimate create a mutually-beneficial economic relationship for all three actors.
New Delhi should also not neglect to promote various forms of soft power connectivity. Its inextricable cultural ties with Myanmar can be used to foster deeper civic bonds. Within the sphere of diplomacy, concentrated efforts to enhance bilateral relations would further serve Indian interests. As Naypyidaw increasingly welcomes foreign engagement, New Delhi would be wise to strengthen communication channels and political dialogue to more intimate levels.
India might find some support for this in Aung San Suu Kyi herself, who spent much of her youth in India. Suu Kyi, nominally the state counselor but who has essentially governed with authority exceeding that of the president, previously studied in New Delhi and remarked that she considered India “her second home.” India would certainly benefit from Suu Kyi’s support, and her continued blessing could be a key component in fulfilling India’s potential to implement the Act East initiative. India’s historic cultural and ethnic ties to Myanmar is a bond that other countries cannot replicate.
Should India wish to realize its foreign aspirations looking eastward and rejuvenate cultural and commercial links with the wider ASEAN community, it must dedicate efforts to consolidating its initiatives in Myanmar first. Acting East has proven to be more difficult than New Delhi has anticipated, as its massive bureaucratic apparatus has been beset by a lack of coordination and domestic distractions. Cultivating trade arteries with complementary functioning infrastructure between the two countries could significantly transform the economic landscape in border states that have lagged behind in development. Establishing such a corridor with Myanmar is crucial to the success of India’s pivot to ASEAN as its eastern neighbor will serve as a bridge to Southeast Asia.
The onus is now on New Delhi to not merely look east but to act as well, translating its strategic objectives into substantial results. Until then, the gulf between the policy’s regional potential and its actual unfulfilled reality will continually widen.
Jonathan Tai is a research assistant at Inle Advisory Group, a Myanmar and emerging market-centric business advisory firm.