Eleven months after Myanmar’s military junta grabbed power from the democratically elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), India has taken a “decisive step” to officially engage with Myanmar’s military. Days after the Indian foreign secretary visited Myanmar on December 22, and met Myanmar’s military chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, India has proclaimed a policy shift concerning diplomatic engagement with Myanmar’s current regime.
As Indian media have reported, New Delhi is following “twin-track approach” – carrying on diplomatic engagement with Myanmar’s military and, at the same time, pushing for the country’s return to democracy. But such a policy approach – which stands in sharp contrast to India’s Western, “like-minded” strategic partners approach since the coup in February last year – raises questions. After 11 months of vacillation, how will a decision to engage Myanmar’s junta contribute to India’s broader geostrategic aspirations?
Beyond India’s much-flaunted “Look East” and “Neighborhood First” strategic orientation and its economic stakes in Myanmar under the $484-million Kaladan Multimodal Project, two immediate concerns on the part of India have driven it to spin its policy approach to Myanmar: the growing influence of China in Myanmar and security apprehensions across the 1,700-km-long India-Myanmar border.
China has deep-rooted historical ties with Myanmar, resulting in a multidimensional relation stretching from trade and investment to its blanket support for Myanmar in international stage. Initially after the coup, China distanced itself from the junta, mostly to ward off the backlash from Myanmar people and to avert international censure. But in recent times China has started to warm up to the Myanmar junta, effectively accepting military rule an inevitable reality for the near term. As evidence, Beijing gifted a secondhand Ming-class diesel-electric submarine to Myanmar in December 2021. Beijing has also made progress in developing the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), a multibillion-dollar project promising to connect Myanmar’s Indian Ocean coast to China’s Yunnan province. Although China’s influence over Myanmar is long-evolved and well-established over the decades, the recent Indo-Chinese border conflict and China’s growing economic clout across the South Asian region have fomented India’s concern and desperation to contain China – including countering Beijing in Myanmar.
Another factor that has pushed India to tread this policy path is its growing security concern across the border with Myanmar. Since the coup in Myanmar, and subsequent instability across the restive states bordering India’s Northeast provinces, both a refugee influx from Myanmar into the border areas of India and activities by the proscribed insurgent groups active in northeast India have deteriorated the security environment there.
The recent attack on 46 Assam Rifles, which caused seven deaths including the commandant, added evidence to India’s growing security apprehensions, as the group behind the attack reportedly used Myanmar’s border states as sanctuary. That is why, among other issues, security topped the agenda during the Indian foreign secretary’s visit to Myanmar. India is seeking Myanmar’s support in not letting the insurgent groups use Myanmar soil to plan and launch attacks on India.
From realpolitik perspective, India’s policy spin concerning Myanmar, given the above mentioned concerns, might be considered well-timed. But it will have negative consequences with respect to India’s relations with other neighboring states, particularly with Bangladesh, and its long-term strategic endurance against China. This policy shift toward full-fledged engagement with the brutal Myanmar military, responsible for a genocidal assault on Myanmar’s Rohingya minority as well as an ongoing crackdown on civilians of all ethnic groups, will hold back India’s broader geopolitical aspirations.
Given there are more than 1 million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar languishing in Bangladesh, bilateral outreach to Myanmar by any country automatically brings Bangladesh’s stakes into the relational calculus. Being the historically-tested closest partner of India and having a great degree of commonalities between the two countries, Bangladesh’s interests and aspirations call for more careful and cordial appraisal from India amid New Delhi’s diplomatic moves toward Myanmar.
India’s newly adopted dual-track policy approach aspires to engage with Myanmar’s military junta, with the explicit goal being to ensure security in its northeastern provinces and implicit one to stand counterweight to China’s growing clout across South Asia. But, in a clear affront to Bangladesh, India’s Myanmar policy once again has demonstrated that New Delhi remains oblivious to Dhaka’s major concern: the repatriation of more than one million Rohingya refugees atrociously ousted by the very military leaders with whom India now seeks to engage. Whatever geopolitical calculation has driven India to resort to a policy of appeasement vis-a-vis Myanmar’s military regime, it appears to have failed to factor any consideration of the Rohingya issue or Bangladesh’s sensitivities into its engagement equation. A closer look suggests India’s new “two-track” policy won’t help to attain its broader geostrategic goals – containing China and achieving regional supremacy.
First, treading the same path that its fiercest foe is used to following won’t lead to the competitive margins India wants to garner. India needs to reflect on its asymmetric strength, the relative soft power it holds. In terms of hard power, both economically and militarily, India is far behind China. Only in soft power does India excel far beyond China. By pursuing diplomatic engagement with the Myanmar military without enlisting one of the greatest humanitarian disasters waiting to be resolved into its agenda, India risks losing its competitive soft power margins with China. Meanwhile, many of the “like-minded” democracies that India has enlisted as partners in its pushback to China continue to shun the Myanmar junta, and India’s new embrace of the Tatmadaw could cause frictions.
Second, amid India’s strained relations with its neighbors – the perennial problem with Pakistan, protracted tension along Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China, the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, and the overwhelming influence of China in Sri Lanka and Nepal – India’s relationship with Bangladesh stands out as a rare positive. Even as India has instituted domestic political schemes (such as the Citizenship Amendment Acts or National Register of Citizens) that negatively impact Bangladesh, Dhaka nevertheless remain devoted to its historical ties with India.
It would be upright folly on the part of India to embrace an uncertain neighbor with near-zero global standing – Myanmar’s junta – for short-term geopolitical scores at the far greater cost of losing a long-term, trusted and tested ally in Bangladesh. Simply put, India cannot afford to ignore the Rohingya issue – one of Bangladesh’s most pressing priorities – in its Myanmar policy.