Myanmar can be described as the quintessential small state whose foreign policy is impinged on by the overtures of its larger neighbors — China and India. That is in part due to its geographical location impacting Myanmar’s policy formulation, but also a reflection of the fact that, historically, Myanmar’s military rule has led to global condemnation and the imposition of Western sanctions. Coping with these realities, Myanmar’s foreign policy has included partly relying on befriending China and also improving ties with fellow ASEAN member states.
Myanmar’s approach to India has however, been fraught with indifference (during the 1970s) or hostility (in the 1980s). It is important to understand that despite having historically close relations and sharing an ‘organic’ border with free movement between different ethnic tribes such as the Ahoms, Lushais, and Chins, colonial and postcolonial politics have strained the relations. This was largely due to India’s support for the democratic movement within Myanmar following the takeover by the military regime in 1962.
From the 1990s, however, the relations took a better turn, with the Tatmadaw re-establishing diplomatic relations. Significantly, this period was characterized by India’s promulgation of the Look East Policy (LEP). The LEP was instituted based on the logic of India aiming to improve its economic and strategic ties with Southeast Asia. Myanmar, being the only physical connection between India the region, gained salience in the LEP from the state.
However, that did not immediately translate into improving bilateral relations. In fact, in 1987 when late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi sought to initiate bilateral relations with Myanmar, the meeting did not progress smoothly. General Ne Win, on meeting the Indian delegation, was described as being avuncular “from the word go” and shot down every proposal put forth by India. The historical and geographical realities coupled with India’s sluggish implementation of infrastructure projects have resulted in LEP not being a success in Myanmar.
Given this context, it becomes pertinent to examine Myanmar’s perspective on the Act East Policy (AEP). Broadly, Myanmar’s approach to India’s AEP can be analyzed through the main goals underpinning Myanmar’s overall foreign policy toward India: bandwagoning, hedging, and institutionalized cooperation.
In international relations parlance, bandwagoning is essentially a policy adopted by a threatened state which aligns with the threatening state in order to protect its interests. It enables the weaker state to engage and deal with a balance of power crisis. This is witnessed in how Myanmar has adopted a policy of bandwagoning with China in light of Western sanctions. However, as a response to its overreliance on China (resulting from bandwagoning) Myanmar has actively sought to engage with India. This fits into Myanmar’s goal of hedging with India, providing Myanmar an opportunity to counteract its overreliance on China and enhance its development and security prospects.
Myanmar’s policy of hedging is complimented by India’s AEP. This is witnessed in India’s move toward signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Myanmar for improving the “socioeconomic condition” of the people belonging to Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The MoU seeks to help the displaced Rohingya community within Rakhine and contribute to their resettlement and social welfare. Furthermore, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Myanmar in 2017 led to significant discussions on expanding India’s role in undertaking infrastructural and socioeconomic projects.
India has the upper hand compared to China in catering to Myanmar’s needs for better education, training, and skill development. This is witnessed in the close collaboration between the Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) in Bangalore and the Myanmar Institute of Technology. Also private players such as the TATA Consultancy Service (TCS) have undertaken projects in Myanmar as well. India has provided loans to develop and upgrade infrastructure projects such as the Yangon-Mandalay rail link, and in the recent past, as part of the AEP, Modi has begun negotiations in upgrading road links between the two nation states.
Such projects fit well into the fold of the AEP in the context of Myanmar and gives Myanmar the impetus to hedge China. Myanmar’s hedging policy diversifies its economic portfolio and reduces its reliance on China. This impacts India’s AEP positively, giving it credence.
However, the sluggish pace of Indian projects over the years, coupled with Myanmar’s bandwagoning with China, impeded past policies such as the LEP and continue to impact the AEP. The delay in the trilateral highway linking Thailand, Myanmar, and India has witnessed continuous delays, with its deadline shifted from 2014 to 2020. Similarly the Kaladan Multi-Modal Project has also faced delays; nearly a decade after initiation, the overland road still does not connect to Mizoram.
Furthermore, with Myanmar undergoing a transition toward democratic institution-building, the number of players that can counter the Chinese presence has increased. These players include Japan, Germany, and several players from ASEAN such as Thailand and Singapore. Japan especially can give India tough competition in Myanmar.
The second goal of Myanmar’s foreign policy is institutionalized cooperation in relation to challenges arising from drug trafficking and insurgency. Such challenges are shared by both India and Myanmar and fit into the agenda of the AEP on India’s side. Significantly, the aspect of security cooperation distinguishes the AEP from the earlier LEP. This is witnessed in the increasing defense ties between India and Myanmar. The two states have engaged in several training exercises and drills.
Despite the rocky relations India shared with the Tatmadaw during the Ne Win period, a lot has changed since that could make the AEP more successful than the LEP. In fact, in 2017 the Tatmadaw received training for United Nations peacekeeping duties from Indian Army officers in Meghalaya. This was the first bilateral training in India.
This occurred in spite of the surgical strike across the Myanmar border by Indian forces in 2015, indicating that defense cooperation remains high on Myanmar’s list of expectations from India. In regards to the surgical strike, Saw Htay, director of Myanmar’s presidential office, stated that “Myanmar will not accept any foreigner who attacks neighboring countries in the back and creates problems by using our own territory.” Despite the strains caused, defense cooperation has proceeded to show positive signs, with Tatmadaw’s Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing visiting India for eight days in 2017. However, the Indian government’s showcasing of the surgical strike publicly hampered diplomatic ties and such an approach needs to avoided in the future.
The defense cooperation includes India providing Myanmar with arms equipment, jointly patrolling borders with Myanmar (to tackle insurgency, as both states face perilous peripheries along the border area), and also dispatching warships to Myanmar’s ports at regular intervals. Such ties promote cooperation on internal domestic challenges while catering to strategic interests for Myanmar. However, the summer 2017 standoff between China and India in Doklam has increased the sensitivity of defense cooperation between Myanmar and India.
Nevertheless, defense cooperation with India, specifically in terms of training of officers at Indian defense academies coupled with the sale of military equipment, is crucial for Myanmar, which is actively seeking to diversify its defense imports. The institutionalization of cooperation against illicit drug trafficking across the border region through border patrolling further intensifies bilateral ties. Therefore for Myanmar, India’s AEP plays an advantageous role in meeting its strategic interests specifically from the angle of military engagement. From India’s standpoint, this is a crucial area to pitch to Myanmar given that other players such as Japan cannot provide the Tatmadaw a reliable hedge or alternative in the security dimension.
The AEP, when seen from the prism of Myanmar’s overall strategy, complements its strategic and economic needs. This is evidenced in the improvements in military engagement between the Tatmadaw and the Indian defense forces. But as stated, the reception of the AEP by Myanmar is more complicated given the heavy Chinese involvement within the state and also mistakes committed by India in terms of the lack of initiative in project completion coupled with the surgical strikes of 2015 straining relations. India needs to carefully walk the tightrope in garnering Tatmadaw’s support despite the ongoing democratic transition within the state.
This becomes especially difficult because New Delhi, while supporting the democratic transition in Myanmar, also needs to scrutinize the Tatmadaw’s policies toward ethnic minorities. Balancing between these seemingly opposing policies is crucial to how effective the AEP will be in Myanmar. The AEP, like LEP, is instituted on a sound consideration of geographical realities and history, but requires active engagement to fructify.
Ramya P S is a Ph.D. Scholar at South Asian University (SAARC Initiative), New Delhi.