Strategic importance of Myanmar
#GS2 #BilateralRelations #IndiaMyanmar
Recently, India’s Army Chief Manoj Vikram Naravane and Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shingla made an official visit to Myanmar. There is a common link between the challenges we face in Ladakh and the developments across our borders with Myanmar. While we are confronting direct Chinese aggression in Ladakh, the challenges in Myanmar arise from Chinese policies designed to use Myanmar soil to promote separatist violence in our north-eastern States.
China sponsored insurgency
- Virtually every armed insurgent group in our North-East has links with armed insurgent groups in north-western Myanmar, notably the Kachin Independence Army, which also operates across Myanmar’s borders with China’s bordering province of Yunnan.
- China’s relations with Myanmar are quite unique. Given existing sanctions by both the US and its European Allies, especially after the Rohingya refugee crisis, Myanmar has become heavily dependent on China.
- The Myanmar-China border has become the epicentre of local armed separatist groups operating on Myanmar soil, and Indian groups, ranging from ULFA in Assam to the NSCN (IM) in Nagaland. Members of these Indian groups enter China’s Yunnan after crossing the border into Myanmar’s Kachin Province. They are welcomed, armed, trained and even financed in the Yunnan Province before crossing back to India.
- There are 26 indigenous armed separatist groups in Myanmar including the powerful 12,000-15,000-strong Kachin Independence Army, which operates along Myanmar’s borders with both India and China, and the 20,000-25,000- strong United State Army, deployed along the China-Myanmar border.
- These groups are armed and used as leverage by China to interfere in and influence Myanmar’s internal affairs. China even has an Ambassador to liaise with armed groups operating along and across the China-Myanmar border. China influences these armed groups, which are presently participating in a conference organised by the Myanmar Government for drafting a new Constitution for the country.
- China is determined to dominate Myanmar’s internal politics by direct contacts with and support for some of its armed, separatist groups. Beijing also uses such leverage and its political support to obtain contracts for infrastructure and other projects involving construction of ports, dams, roads, bridges and for the mining of precious stones, minerals and metals across Myanmar.
Protests from Myanmar
- While Myanmar is compelled to tolerate and live with Chinese interference, there have been recent instances when Myanmar has reacted strongly to Chinese transgressions.
- Sittwe is ideally located for trans-shipment of goods to and from Kolkata. The Sittwe Port has been built with Indian assistance. Myanmar has made no secret of its concerns about China’s long-standing links with separatist groups in its north-eastern States.
- During a recent visit to Russia, Myanmar’s Senior General Min Aung Hlaing made a pointed reference in a Russian state-run TV interview, to a “strong force” backing the Arakan Army. His spokesman clarified that the weapons used by the Arakan Army were made in China.
India’s interests in Myanmar
- Strategically, India has established its presence across the shores of Myanmar, in the Bay of Bengal, as a result of participation of ONGC in successful offshore oil exploration projects.
- It also has a presence in Sittwe Port that it has built on the Bay of Bengal, principally for transportation of goods from Mizoram and other north-eastern States, across the Bay of Bengal, to Kolkata. This is particularly important as, in the meantime, China is keen to invest $7.2 billion on building the Bay of Bengal Port of Kyaukphyu, together with oil and gas pipelines, linking the Port to its Yunnan Province. The Kyaukphyu port is located not far from the Sittwe Port built by India.
Providing alternatives to Myanmar
- There are naturally concerns in Myanmar of facing a “debt trap” situation on the Kyaukphyu port project, akin to that faced by Sri Lanka on the Hambantota Port, built by China.
- Moreover, we would be well-advised in joining with our partners in the Quad on issues ranging from dealing with Rohingya refugees to projects involving large investments, if we are to seriously challenge Chinese ambitions in Myanmar.
- Ideally, the issue of Rohingya refugees, which is raising tensions between Myanmar and Bangladesh, would be best resolved by an inclusive effort involving Myanmar’s affected regional neighbours and major external powers like Japan and the US.
- Myanmar lies on the crossroads between India and Bangladesh, on the one hand, and ASEAN countries, on the other. It is on the crossroads of South and South-East Asia. It has to be an integral part of any strategy the Quad adopts to balance Chinese power in South and South-East Asia.
- The Quad will have to pay due attention to the problems and challenges that Myanmar faces from China while dealing with the challenges posed by a growingly aggressive and assertive China.
- Moreover, India’s private sector will have to be incentivised to carefully study the opportunities available and map out a strategy to enhance its presence in Myanmar. India has, however, done well by establishing training institutions in information technology and agricultural research in Myanmar.
- Military cooperation with Myanmar is set to expand with the supply of a Kilo-Class submarine and torpedoes, with discussions reportedly under way for the supply of 105 mm artillery guns, radars and sonars.