India-Myanmar ties: Can the Beijing factor be overcome?
Helping strengthen democracy is the first step
04 November 2016
By: Tridivesh Singh Maini

Myanmar National Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi's recent first official visit to India was significant for a number of reason. Suu Kyi participated in the BRICS-BIMSTEC Summit in Goa, and met with the Indian President Pranab Mukherjee, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj.

While a lot of attention is paid to China-Myanmar relations, and the fact that Suu Kyi's first overseas visit was to China, statements by both Modi and Suu Kyi highlighted the point that while the China-Myanmar economic relationship may be strong, Myanmar should not rely solely on Beijing and is looking for other investors. Indian investment for 2015-2016 was estimated at a little over $220 million, while Chinese investment over the same period was a whopping $3 billion. 

While it is true that resentment is building against China, especially some of the projects – such as the Myitsone dam – which it is funding, with the removal of sanctions Myanmar is not be solely dependent upon Beijing, and already countries like Singapore and Japan are making their presence felt. It is also true, that it is virtually impossible for India to catch up with China in the short run. But private sector companies like the Tata Group are expanding operations, and realize the immense economic potential of the country, given its location and favorable demographics.

But, at the same time, there are areas where India is in a better shape to be of assistance. Democracy is clearly a strong binding factor between the two. The Global Times (September 13, 2016) acknowledged this point, quoting Suu Kyi saying during her visit that India was the “greatest democracy in the world” and that Myanmar could learn from Lok Sabha (the Indian Parliament) and other legislative bodies.

The Global Times also made another significant point: “In years to come, the Myanmarese government might have more expectations in India over economic and trade cooperation, defense collaboration and joint works to expand connectivity with neighboring countries.”

Modi’s focus on capacity building

Modi on his part praised Suu Kyi for her vision for Myanmar, stating that India would back her efforts. Myanmar being India’s gateway to Southeast Asia is crucial for India’s Act East Policy, yet the Indian prime minister sent a clear message that his country has a long-term interest in Myanmar’s progress and prosperity. He also said that India is keen to assist in key sectors such as healthcare and would like to contribute towards capacity building.

“From the mega connectivity projects like Kaladan and Trilateral Highway, to projects in the fields of human resource development, healthcare, training and capacity building, we are sharing our resources and expertise with Myanmar,” Modi said.

This statement was important, because New Delhi needs to dispel the impression, that it only looks at the country as a gateway to Southeast Asia or as a lucrative market.

Three agreements were signed between the two sides in the power sector, banking supervision (between the Reserve Bank of India and the Central Bank of Myanmar) and for setting up an academic program for the insurance sector. India also offered assistance for setting up a seed farm in Yezin, to raise the power supply from Moreh (Manipur) to Tamu (Myanmar) and in setting up an LED plant in Myanmar.


Both sides also sought to deepen security ties, by strengthening cooperation along the borders. Suu Kyi on her part criticized the recent terror attack in Uri, and expressed solidarity with the victim’s families. Both condemned terrorism in all its manifestations.

India is following a different path from China, and has not restricted itself to just trade and investment. It should seek to further help Myanmar in creating robust institutions, while expediting connectivity projects and expanding both economic ties and people-to-people contact. India and Myanmar agreed to set up immigration facilities at the Tamu-Moreh and Rhi-Zowkhathar border crossing points, with the objective of facilitating regulated but smooth movement of people across the land borders for tourism and business. Such steps will not just benefit bilateral ties with Myanmar and India’s Act East Policy but also India’s North East which has been neglected for so long.

India cannot ignore what Beijing does in Myanmar, or for that matter any other neighboring country, but it should be confident of its own strengths, and also work on filling in the gaps.

The statements of both Suu Kyi and Modi send a clear message: that both sides are keen to expand the relationship and not to look at the bilateral relationship through a narrow lens. The consolidation of democracy in Myanmar, accompanied by robust economic growth, will help in dispelling the myth of authoritarian set ups being more effective. India, without sermonizing Myanmar, should contribute positively towards strengthening democracy.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, Sonipat.

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