Engagement or Estrangement: India-China Balancing Act in Myanmar

Sampurna Goswami
November 10, 2019


Image Courtesy: Flickr

Since the 1990s, forces of liberalization, privatization, and globalization have compelled a change in the trajectory of the International Relations discourse. This has resulted in strategic partnerships and cooperation replacing the idea of strategic competition and conflict, more than ever before. However, this transition from competition to cooperation has not completely erased the notions of rivalry, conflict, containment, or domination but has formed a new narrative in the arena of diplomacy termed as ‘Con-gagement’ – a kind of relationship where both the elements of containment and engagement exist.

The Indo-pacific region has been a theatre of changing power equations where the nation-states are rising, countering, and containing through mutual encirclements and alliance proxies. China’s quest to contain the US and vice versa are giving rise to new alliances, partnership, and shifts in power centers. In this backdrop, the less powerful states, finding it hard to adjust with the power transition, are engaging with sub-regional initiatives more. One such sub-region in the Indo-pacific is the theatre of Myanmar, where India and China are ‘engaging’ for ‘containing’ each other. Connectivity, investment, and infrastructural development define the very character of this sub-region where China’s pronounced footprints and India’s striving efforts to compete has helped Myanmar to accrue economic dividends.

Of late, China has tried to bring in Myanmar under its greater ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) with a purview that accessing Myanmar’s southern rimland would help China to enhance its presence in the Bay of Bengal region. On the other hand, India, under its Act East Policy, is trying to make inroads into South East Asia, considering Myanmar as a base to counterbalance China. But is India really capable of containing China by exacting compliance from these lesser powerful states in the region? Notably, both India and China’s reluctance and apprehension to engage with each other has given rise to a more competitive situation in the theatre of Myanmar. Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC) is one such project.

Post completion of the China Myanmar Economic Corridor that connects Kunming in China to Kyaukphyu in Myanmar, China is now trying to establish a rail link that would give greater access and help in easy mobility of goods and cargo from the port in Myanmar to Kunming in China. On the other hand, India’s most ambitious connectivity projects in Myanmar, whether the Trilateral Highway or the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project remains incomplete and, therefore, its competence compared to that of China, is often questioned. Moreover, the Sub-region that witnesses a competition between two major Asian powers faces challenges that hinder the process of trans-national development, and this challenge comes from the existence of an array of insurgent groups who questions the role of the government. Most of the existing theories on the socio-political dynamics of the region state that uneven development and the inability of the national governments to meet the basic demands of the people, has led to such resistance. However, there exists another school of thought that highlights the role of China in provoking insurgencies as a diplomatic tool. According to critics, this helps in teasing out acquiescence from Myanmar, as well as to confine India’s growth within its territorial boundaries by disrupting the structures of peace and development.

Recent reports on China’s tacit support to the ‘United Wa State Army’, a rebellion group that has been into a scuffle with the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army), has become a cause of concern in Myanmar amongst the civil society organizations. The government, on the other hand, believes that China is using the Wa State as an apparatus to compel Myanmar to accept the conditions under China’s BRI ambitions. Such apprehensions, however, is proving to be a boon for India’s interests in Myanmar. Until now, Myanmar was trying to balance India and China in the region with a perception that the Sino-Indian ‘Con-gagement’ will bring about unprecedented advantages for Myanmar in areas of the economy, infrastructure and connectivity but China’s BRI ambitions are luring Myanmar to shift the balance more in favor of India.

Apart from engaging actively in Track II diplomacy, India has now become more pro-active in investing in Myanmar’s defense sector. July 29, 2019, witnessed a watershed development in the bilateral relationship when India and Myanmar signed defense cooperation. This came at a time when the west is alienating itself from Myanmar amidst the humanitarian crisis going on in the Rakhine state. Over the past few decades, China has remained Myanmar’s strategic partner in areas of military procurements, but the quality of the Chinese military hardware has been questioned very often. This development seems to open avenues for India to intensify its engagement with her South-East Asian neighbor.

At the time, when the Indo-pacific is witnessing a feud between the US-Japan and Russo-Chinese power denominations, the mercurial leadership under US President Donald Trump and the realpolitik oriented ambitions of China is luring smaller powers in search of a responsible player in the region. India’s diplomacy in the region, its investment, and engagement, although much weaker in comparison to the major powers, is directed not only to consolidate its presence but to achieve an all-pervasive growth and development across borders that ipso facto augment growth within the territorial borders of the nation-states. This nuanced understanding of the notion of ‘concerted initiative’ in India’s diplomacy projects India to be a more responsible emerging power in the Indo-pacific. Thus, India’s role in Myanmar will be instrumental in deciding the future of India’s inroads in the region as a whole.

*** Author is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Sukanta College, University of Calcutta & Ph.D Scholar, Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University ***