Myanmar could be India’s gateway to Southeast Asia

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Myanmar's Aung San Suu KyiPhoto:Narendra Modi

China’s inroads in Myanmar through its Belt and Road Initiative are forcing India to rethink its connectivity with Southeast Asia.

By Niranjan Marjani

On January 17 and 18, China’s President Xi Jinping visited Myanmar, the first visit by a Chinese president to Myanmar in 19 years. Xi Jinping’s visit brought both the status of India-Myanmar and China-Myanmar relations to the forefront of public consciousness.

During the visit, a number of agreements were signed between both the countries, among them were several infrastructure projects and the extension of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to Myanmar. China has proposed the construction of a China-Myanmar Economic Corridor and the development of Myanmar’s deep sea port at Kyaukpyu.

China’s strategic and economic expansion on India’s doorstep is a cause of concern for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The BRI extension into Myanmar creates a strategic challenge for India which needs to be considered from three points of view – Myanmar as a part of India’s Act East Policy, challenges to land connectivity and the need to develop a maritime gateway.

Myanmar is an important part of India’s Act East Policy

India’s northeast is considered the country’s gateway to Southeast Asia. India shares more than 1,600 km of border with Myanmar and has two shared infrastructure projects connecting the nation’s northeast to Southeast Asia.

The India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, which will span more than 1,300 km once completed this year, will connect Moreh in Manipur in India to Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar. As a part of a drive to enhance connectivity with Myanmar, the Moreh-Tamu land route joining Moreh in India with Tamu in Myanmar became operational in 2018.

The second project, the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project, is a combination of a land, river and sea routes. These routes will connect Kolkata port in India with Sittwe port in Myanmar by sea. It will also link Sittwe to Paletwa in Myanmar by the Kaladan river. Paletwa will be connected by road to the state of Mizoram in India.

Pakokku Bridge over the Irrawaddy River. The bride is part of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway
Pakokku Bridge crosses the Irrawaddy River as part of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway.
Photo: Calflier

India first started the connectivity drive as part of its ‘Look East’ policy in 1992. It sought to deepen engagement with Southeast Asia.

In 2014 India launched its ‘Act East’ Policy which expanded Southeast Asian engagement to include strategic cooperation. The Act East Policy has resulted in the recalibration of India-Myanmar relations. Following the end of military rule in Myanmar, there has been a renewed push for closer India-Myanmar diplomatic and economic ties.

The infrastructure plans seek to facilitate trade between the two nations and potentially bring Indian tourists to Myanmar. In 2019, India-ASEAN trade reached US$96.79 billion. However, with deeper economic cooperation, experts predict it could rapidly expand to US$300 billion by 2025.

Bar chart depicting Indian-ASEAN trade

There is a lot of scope for economic development in Myanmar’s western provinces and India’s northeast. Improved connectivity between India and Myanmar would meet one of the preconditions for economic development and forging stronger economic ties.

Insurgencies pose an obstacle to improved land connectivity

An insurgency in northeast India and the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar have hampered India-Myanmar connectivity.

The Naga and Bodo insurgencies have been major disrupting forces in India’s northeast. Over a period of three weeks in May and June 2019, Indian and Myanmese security forces carried out coordinated military operations against camps of insurgent groups in their respective territories along the border.

The Indian government held talks with Naga insurgents about a possible ceasefire in October 2019, but a resolution remained elusive. On Monday, January 27, the Indian government signed a peace accord with the Bodo insurgents, marking an important step towards stability in India’s northeast.

Similarly, the Rohingya crisis is also having an impact on infrastructure plans. The Kaladan river route runs through Rakhine State, which has been plagued with conflict between Myanmar’s security forces and the Arakan Army, a Rohingya militant group.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands could function as an alternative maritime gateway

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are part of India’s Union Territory but situated in the Indian Ocean, about 1300 km southeast of the mainland. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are within 750 km from Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Myanmar.

The Andaman Islands, India.
The Andaman Islands, India.
Photo: Venkatesh K

The Indian government has taken steps toward the strategic and economic development of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. In 2001 the Indian government established the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) to carry out surveillance and provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to the region. However, given their strategic locations, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have the potential to play a greater role as a strategic launch point to Southeast Asia.

The Indian government has already undertaken measures to develop the shipping and port infrastructure in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

With China’s strategic assertion in the South China Sea region, Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore and Myanmar are looking for regional powers that can play a balancing role in the region.

Deeper economic ties with India and the development of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as a strategic link to Southeast Asia could play an important role not just for India but also to protect the strategic interests of ASEAN nations.

But India will be watching China’s behaviour in Myanmar closely.  Myanmar’s deeper economic ties to Beijing and increased cooperation is of concern to the Indian government.  Chinese cooperation has led to an increased military presence in the region, and the Indian government will fear the development of a port at Kyaukpyu could lead to possible military use. With hints of a possible Chinese naval base in Pakistan and Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port now under Chinese control, India is wary of the emergence of a strategic encirclement.

While China has supported Myanmar throughout its period of military rule and continues to foster close economic ties with the young democracy, India needs to step up its diplomatic, economic and strategic cooperation with Myanmar. Better connectivity between the two nations would offer India an overland connection to Southeast Asia and bring economic benefits for all parties.