India needs to be cautious about China while dealing with Myanmar

Prateek Chopra | Updated: February 03, 2021, 1:39 IST

India needs to be cautious about China while dealing with Myanmar

In the early hours of Monday, Myanmar’s military had staged a coup, and detained the country’s de-facto Prime Minister, Aung San Suu Kyi, and other officials. The Burmese military, also known as Tatmadaw, seized the control from a government that was established just five years ago, and declared a state of emergency for a year.

The takeover also discontinued the office of the President Myint Swe, as the armed forces detained him also on the day that was supposed to be the incumbent’s government first day in a new Parliament session. Just a few hours after the developments, a military television network confirmed about the coup to the public, and announced that all the power has been transferred to Commander in Chief of the Defence Forces of Myanmar, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

The alleged voter fraud in Myanmar’s last general election was given as a reason by the military to the overthrow of Government. “Although the sovereignty of the nation must derive from the people, there was terrible fraud in the voter list during the democratic general election which runs contrary to ensuring a stable democracy,” the army said through a statement.

Last year’s elections in November saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, National League for Democracy winning with a landslide margin – 396 seats out of the 476 contested – over the military’s representative party, Union Solidarity and Development Party, which had won 33 seats. Out of total 664 seats, clear majority is established by winning 332 seats, but according to the Constitution, 25 per cent of the seats are reserved for army’s representatives. Therefore, the elections are contested on 498 seats effectively.

The civil society came out on the roads to protest the move by the military, and international community also condemned the developments. India, US, UN, among others expressed grave concerns with different intensity in their stances, while China seemed more-or-less indifferent towards the takeover by the military.

How did the other countries react?

India, maintaining a balanced stance, expressed “deep concern” about the ongoing situation in Myanmar, and said, “rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld.” The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said that it is monitoring the situation closely.

US took an aggressive position and guaranteed to “take action against those responsible if these steps aren't reversed.” Standing in solidarity with the people of Burma, US also said that it would be monitoring the situation closely.

China, on the other hand, maintained an apathetic stand towards Myanmar. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin, said that Beijing hopes that all sides can resolve their differences under the framework of the constitution and law, and safeguard political and social stability. China avoided calling it a coup, and its state-run media outlet, Xinhua News Agency said that developments in Myanmar is a “major cabinet reshuffle.”

India’s relation with Myanmar

India needs to be cautious about China while dealing with Myanmar

Deemed by India as the gateway to South East Asia, Myanmar holds an important position in India’s ‘Act East’ and ‘Neighbourhood First’ policies. India shares a land border of around 1,640 kms with Myanmar, and a maritime boundary of more than 700 kms in the Bay of Bengal. India aims to incorporate Myanmar into its superior idea of the Indo-Pacific.

Diplomacy has been the key factor in determining the relationship between two neighbours. It is because of statesmanship from New Delhi’s side that India has maintained a sound relationship with both the Tatmadaw, and the government of Myanmar. India enjoys a trust factor because of being a major democracy, both in terms of economy and military might, in the South East Asian region.

India and Government of Myanmar

Last year, PM Narendra Modi had held that India is ready to provide all possible assistance to mitigate the health and economic impact of Coronavirus pandemic in Myanmar. Thereafter, India has gifted 1.5 million of doses of its domestic made vaccine to Myanmar under Vaccine Maitri initiative. Moreover, Myanmar has signed a contract with the Serum Institute of India to purchase 30 million doses of Covishield vaccine.

Myanmar is a significant member of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), which is a regional organisation that is committed to nurture bilateral and regional cooperation among the Bay of Bengal countries. Myanmar President Win Myint Swe had attended the second swearing-in of PM Modi on behalf of the State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi who was on her visit to Europe then.

Being the only ASEAN country that shares a boundary with India, Myanmar provides India an access to other South East Asian countries. After formally detaching itself from The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), India has looked to engage with ASEAN countries independently and not as a group, and Myanmar was the key partner in that regard.

Aung San Suu Kyi had visited India for the 25th India-ASEAN Commemorative Summit in January 2018, and met President Ram Nath Kovind. Subsequently, our President also visited Myanmar in December 2018, and held bilateral meeting with the now-detained President of Myanmar, and State Counsellor.

Moreover, on the infrastructure development side, India is involved in two major projects in Myanmar. One of them is Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project which is a multi-modal sea, river, and road transport corridor which aims to connect Rakhine State of Myanmar to North East India. Other one is India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, a 1,360 km long trilateral highway which will connect Moreh in Manipur, India with Mae Sot, Thailand via Myanmar.

India and the Tatmadaw

High level visits to India are conducted not only from the elected representative of Myanmar, but also from the representatives of the Myanmar armed forces. Commander in Chief of the Defence Forces of Myanmar, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, visited India back in July 2017, and then in July 2019.

The 2019 meet garnered a positive and aggressive outlook from both the sides to counter anti-India insurgent groups operating from bases inside Myanmar. Moreover, a defence co-operation agreement to boost military engagement, especially in the maritime warfront, between the two countries was signed.

“The talks were aimed at enhancing defence co-operation, review joint exercises and training provided to Myanmar Defence Services, strengthening maritime security by joint surveillance and capacity building, medical co-operation, pollution response, and developing new infrastructure," a statement from the defence ministry said.

Recently, in October 2020, when foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla was on day-long visit to Myanmar capital Naypyidaw, he invited Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to Darjeeling for his next visit.

Besides these official visits, the armies of the two countries have executed Operation Sunshine 1 and 2 in 2016 and 2019 respectively to neutralise militants in NE India. India also provides training to Myanmar Army, and organise joint training sessions through the India-Myanmar Bilateral Military Exercise (IMBAX) for capacity building of the Burmese Army to take part in UN peacekeeping missions.

Started in 2018, through IMNEX, navies of both the nations prepare together to tackle any maritime adversity in the Indian Ocean Region, which is gaining prominence in the geo-politics arena. 

In addition to this, India has also exported its first domestically-produced anti-submarine torpedo, TAL Shyena in 2017. Two years later in 2019, Myanmar also acquired India’s submarine, INS Sindhuvir.

How does China come into picture?

China has both strategic and economic interests in Myanmar. Chinese Communist Party’s flagship project in Myanmar is China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), which is part of the ambitious Belt and Road initiative. CMEC plans to connect China’s Yunnan province to the Bay of Bengal, perhaps to strengthen China’s String-of-Pearls around India.

Back in the 1960s, for training Mizo and Naga rebel groups, China used to face a pushback from India-Myanmar military partnership. Presently, Tatmadaw have grown more wary of China because China supports rebel outfits like United Wa State Army, the Kokang Army, and the Kachin Independence Army.

Moreover, there are reports which claim that China has been supplying firepower to the Arakan Army operating in Rakhine state. This further leads to delays in the completion of projects under Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project. One of them is Sittwe deep-water port project which is being constructed by India to counter China’s growing presence in the region.

One can say that China is pushing its anti-India agenda through financing insurgency in Rakhine, but is getting countered by Tatmadaw. Therefore, it is safe to assume that China would not prefer Myanmar to get ruled by its Generals, and China has worked well in the past with Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD Party.

Road ahead for India

India needs to be cautious about China while dealing with Myanmar

It will be best for India to maintain a pragmatic stance like it has been doing over the years. It needs to find a way to play a ‘balancing role’ between the two parties of Myanmar, while keeping a special eye on China.

It is due to India’s diplomacy in the east that Myanmar can tilt towards India, considering how India has come to the forefront to help the Third World in the fight against Coronavirus pandemic, but at the same time, India has to be careful because an unstable Myanmar would not help India with its Indo-Pacific goals. Moreover, an unstable Myanmar can look towards China because of China’s superior economic prowess, and can reduce to a mere Satellite State.

In addition to this, India cannot maintain an all-hands-down-aggressive stance like the US did because unlike US, India gets affected directly due to the tensions in Myanmar.

India will have to show Myanmar that it must have faith in a democratic nation, instead of China, which is known for its authoritarian and expansionist regime. India already holds some ground in its immediate East, and it is time to put that position to good use to further its international goals, especially when India sits at the High Table in the UNSC.


More to come in this regard. Stay tuned.


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