Contextualizing Myanmar in India-China disputes

Niranjan Marjani
August 9, 2020


The India-China disputes, going on for three months now, have involved diverse issues and geographical regions. The disputes have ranged from bloody clash in the Galwan Valley to the possibility of the militarization of the Quad. The India-China disputes form part of China’s accelerated assertive activities across the Indo-Pacific region. 

However, all these events have somewhat overshadowed the developments taking place in Myanmar. It is necessary to examine these developments and how they matter to India while facing China’s challenge. 

Myanmar is one of India’s most important countries as a part of the neighborhood as well as a gateway to Southeast Asia since Myanmar shares territorial borders with India and is India’s maritime neighbor through Andaman and Nicobar Islands. 

Myanmar’s peace and stability are imperative for India not just because it affects India’s internal security in the bordering states but also because it also affects India’s outreach to Southeast Asia to a certain extent.

While amid the COVID-19 pandemic, China has been asserting its influence across the South China Sea, and at India’s borders, Myanmar provides an opportunity to India to compete with China. That is because there are growing concerns in Myanmar about China’s activities inside the former’s territory. 

In January this year, Myanmar signed 33 agreements with China to develop infrastructure projects that are a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). On its part, India is involved in the development of the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project and India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway. China’s growing involvement in Myanmar has been a concern for India since Myanmar could be used as an instrument to affect India’s economic and strategic interests in the region. 

Recently India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Myanmar’s Military Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing discussed border security and counter-insurgency operations. In the past few days, Myanmar is taking steps towards warming up its ties with India. At the same time, Myanmar has called out China to provide arms and finance to terror groups like Arakan Army in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. China is believed to be carrying out these activities for two purposes. One is to keep India in check in Myanmar and second, to build pressure on Myanmar to accelerate the BRI projects.

Myanmar, on its part, has decided to expedite the infrastructure projects with India and strengthen strategic cooperation as a countermeasure against China. Myanmar’s recent tilt towards India is because of the insurgency in the Rohingya-majority Rakhine state. Islamic terror groups such as Arakan Army and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army have been a security concern for Myanmar. Chinese funding for these terror groups has also been meant to target Indian projects in Myanmar.

Considering India’s and China’s interests in Myanmar, it is also necessary to consider Myanmar’s current position at the domestic and regional levels. Presently, there are domestic challenges for Myanmar, such as controlling the spread of COVID-19, managing the economy, and holding general elections on November 8. Myanmar has been in a state of lockdown since April and has been extending the lockdowns since. The latest lockdown is extended till August 15, although some restrictions are eased. 

In addition to facing domestic challenges, Myanmar has regional challenges to deal with. The US-China disputes in the South China Sea have affected Myanmar as well. While countering China’s claim to 90% territory of the South China Sea, the US Embassy in Myanmar called Chinese investments in Myanmar as a debt-trap. The US also accused China of involvement in the trafficking of women from Myanmar to China and the inflow of drugs from China to Myanmar.

China’s aggression in its relations with Myanmar and across the South China Sea has allowed Myanmar to diversify its economic engagements with other countries. At the same time, this is also a chance to deepen diplomatic ties with countries like the US and India. This is important because it had limited interaction with these countries for an extended period of time owing to military rule. Democracy has been restored in Myanmar only since the past few years. It is, therefore, essential that Myanmar stands up to China’s attempts to create instability through support to terror groups. 

For India, increased engagements with Myanmar have multiple benefits. India would have an additional mode of connectivity with Southeast Asia. Besides, coordination with Myanmar and especially its security agencies is necessary to fight insurgency in Northeast India. Inside Myanmar, concerted efforts from both sides would help address the challenge posed to Indian interests by terrorist organization Arakan Army. Further increased Indian presence in Myanmar would mean better outreach in Southeast.

*** Niranjan Marjani is a Fellow at Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies ***