India and Myanmar in the Indo-Pacific: Charting the Next Steps

 Kanchi Mathur
April 12, 2020


Keeping their strong relations in mind, India and Myanmar are embarking on a deeper and more meaningful relationship in the Indo-Pacific region. The recent visit of Myanmar’s President U Win Myint to India was marked by a series of high-level interactions between the President and his Indian counterpart President Ram Nath Kovind. The interactions culminated into 10 Memorandums of Understanding between the two nations on several issues ranging from infrastructural development, defense cooperation to medical and cultural exchanges. The article attempts to locate India-Myanmar relations in India’s approach to the Indo-Pacific region. It attempts to assess and analyze the points of convergences and divergences in the relationship, and its implications for India’s Act East Policy that is increasingly being linked to how India intends to maximize its interest in the Indo-Pacific. 

India’s relationship with Myanmar is the core of India’s Act East agenda. Through its ‘Act East’ policy, India aims to broaden the scope and horizon of the erstwhile ‘Look-East’ policy and enhance its engagement with states of Southeast Asia, which it finds central to the broader vision of its role in the Indo-Pacific region. Sitting at the junction of India’s ‘Neighborhood First’ policy and its ‘Act East’ policy, Myanmar is the only nation that connects India’s Northeastern region to Southeast Asia. The geostrategic imperative of building up relations is hence immense. Within the Indo-Pacific, India, through its “Act East” policy, wishes to not only expand its economic presence amongst nations of Southeast Asia but also engage in infrastructure development and maritime security. 

 The rise in Chinese involvement and economic participation in India’s neighboring states is increasingly rendering India’s position challenged. China has been actively aiding Myanmar through its investment initiatives. As part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects, the country has signed 33 MoUs, exchange letters, and protocols. The most important of these initiatives is the China-Myanmar-Economic-Corridor. The project has been proposed to connect China’s Kunming to Mandalay and then extends east and west, respectively, to Yangon and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar. The project, however, currently suffers from growing opposition to Chinese megaprojects. There are also some key bidding, financing and other details open to future negotiations as a result of which the project matures and adds more and more smaller projects to itself in time. This becomes a challenge for India-Myanmar relations as both countries are currently working on a ‘Trilateral Highway’ project that will connect India-Myanmar-Thailand. The issue is that both the CMEC and the Trilateral Highway intersect at Mandalay. This can either be a factor of divergence or convergence for India and China.

Deeper cooperation in both land and maritime domains shall help in creating greater synergy between Myanmar and India’s outlook pertaining to Southeast Asia. India has agreed to enhance maritime cooperation with Myanmar. The two nations have signed an MoU on Maritime Security Cooperation and conducted an exchange of white shipping data. The opening of two land border crossing points at Tamu (Myanmar) -Moreh (India) and Rihkhawdar (Myanmar) -Zowkhawthar (India) as international border gates is one of the many agreed arenas for border cooperation between the two states. 

Apart from this, the two countries are aiming to work towards greater consonance in capacity building and military training. An urgent appeal to the successful completion of the Sittwe Port and the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transport Project can be considered as a case in favor of the two countries to engage in deeper economic relations with one another. The Kaladan Multi-Modal Project is currently estimated at $214 Million and commissioned in 2008 has seen 90% of its work completed in South Mizoram after multiple hiccups. Still, that 10% is unlikely to be finished before 2021 because design clearance is still awaited. The construction of the ‘Sittwe Port’ is part of the Kaladan Multi-Modal Project. The prolonged delay in completing the road project has diminished the viability of existing Indian investment in the port. 

Stability, reconciliation within the communities of Myanmar, and greater augmentation of democratic processes in Myanmar hold substantial geo-economic value for India as it enhances prospects for trade and communication between the two countries. Three of the four developmental projects agreed between India and Myanmar are located in the Rakhine state, which is an active region of conflict currently in Myanmar. One of the reasons India wants to build a more robust partnership with Myanmar relates to India’s energy needs and Myanmar’s role as a supplier of energy. Myanmar and India, in their joint statements, have agreed to “encourage and facilitate cooperation among oil and gas companies”. This cooperation will primarily be in the “areas of refining, stockpiling, blending, and retail.”

Myanmar, being a key geostrategic state for not only India but also China, holds the linchpin to the role of India in the Southeast Asian region and, by extension, in the Indo-Pacific region. Myanmar currently wishes to adhere to India’s notion of the Indo-Pacific, which encourages the principles of “openness, inclusiveness, transparency, respect for international law and ASEAN centrality” in the region. Through engagements through institutional forums like the ASEAN and at the United Nations, the two countries are aiming to elevate their relationship at an international level.

However, there are inherent challenges that both sides need to address to take the relationship forward. Myanmar understands the significance of its relationship with China, while simultaneously building ties with India in view of the latter’s Indo-Pacific aspirations. Therefore, Myanmar may try to play both sides to its advantage. In order to get in Myanmar’s good side, India has taken upon itself almost single-handedly, the responsibility for ensuring a successful completion to all pending border disputes, developmental and trade concerns, and even medical and educational programs. India’s “diplomatic approach” towards Myanmar needs to be nimble-footed and cognizant of the China factor and Myanmar’s expectations from its relationship with India, and India’s own requirements and objectives. 

*** The author is a postgraduate research scholar at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE). The views expressed in the article are personal ***