Burma’s Balancing Acts with India and China

Published on October 12, 2011

By Nehginpao Kipgen

The Epoch Times – October 11, 2011 

In its continued efforts to strengthen bilateral cooperation with neighboring economic powers, the Burmese government has to balance its diplomatic engagements between India and China, which are traditional economic and political rivals. Why is it important for Burma (also known as Myanmar) to appease these countries? How do these balancing acts help the Burmese government? What does Burma need to do to improve its overall economic and political condition?

Balancing Act with India

With the aim of improving Burma’s bilateral relationship with India, the Burmese President Thein Sein is scheduled to begin a three-day visit from Oct. 12 to 15. Sein, a former military general, visited India in November 2008 as prime minister under the military junta of the State Peace and Development Council.

Thein Sein’s first visit as president of a nominal civilian government is significant for two important reasons. First, the new government, although still dominated by former military generals, is seeking to improve its international image by pursuing democratic reforms.

Second, the Burmese government apparently irked the Chinese government, India’s traditional rival, by halting a $3.6 billion hydroelectric project in Kachin state, a surprise announcement made on Sept. 30.

The two countries are expected to sign bilateral agreements, and discuss a wide range of issues, including insurgency problems in Northeast India. Nay Pyi Taw is also expected to seek New Delhi’s recognition, if not support, for its democratic reform process. India has invested in technology and transportation developmental projects, with a target of US$3 billion bilateral trade by 2015.

Whenever a high profile Burmese official visits India, traditionally three major types of events are anticipated: protests by Burmese exiles inNew Delhi; a curiosity as to what significant development may emerge from the bilateral talk, and what implication(s) it might have for Burma-China relations.

The visit comes at a time when there are glimmers of hope for democratic change in Burma under the Union Solidarity and Development Party. The visit is considered mutually beneficial and important for the two nations to strengthen their strategic partnership.

Ahead of this high-level visit, the two countries have engaged in a series of low-level official meetings. At the request of the Indian government, the Burmese army, in the first week of September, attacked the camps of Northeast Indian insurgents based in Sagaing Division, Northwest Burma.

The Indian government anticipates a security agreement under which a joint military operation can be launched to dismantle these camps and destroy these insurgents. India hopes to reach a deal with Burma, similar to the agreements reached with Bangladesh and Bhutan, to launch major military operations.

Under the aegis of its look-east policy, India’s policy toward Burma has changed significantly- from support for the pro-democracy movement to engaging a pro-military government. The policy shift began during the Congress government of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1991, and augmented by the Bhartiya Janata Party government under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998-2004).

India has been criticized by the Burmese opposition and Western democracies for not speaking up on human rights and democratic reforms.

The salient features of Indian foreign policy vis-à-vis Burma can be summarized under three main subjects: seeking Burma’s help in suppressing insurgency problems in Northeast India, to counter China’s growing influence in the region, and to expand its international market in Southeast Asia via Burma.

By engaging Burma, India plans to maximize its security and national interest. Burma, the only Southeast Asian country to share 1,643 kilometers boundary in four Northeast Indian states and a maritime boundary, serves as India’s gateway to the other 10-member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Because of Burma’s strategic location and proximity to China, it is crucial for India to befriend Burma.

While the Western democracies see some signs of democratic reforms and begin to cautiously appreciate the Burmese government, it is important for the world’s largest democratic nation to demonstrate its support for human rights and democratic reforms, besides other interests.

Balancing Act with China

In an attempt to explain and remedy any potential misunderstanding arising out of President Thein Sein’s order to suspend the Myitsone Dam, the Burmese government is sending a delegation led by its vice-president Tin Aung Myint Oo to China from Oct. 21 to 26, a few days after Sein’s return from India.

The vice-president will be accompanied by cabinet members, including a minister in-charge for electric power, and leading business people, including Tun Myint Naing, chairman of the Asia World Construction Company, a major subcontractor on the Myitsone dam project.

The dam, developed by China Power Investment, is the first of seven to be built on the Irrawaddy River.  The dam is designed to provide electricity to the Yunnan province of China.  The suspension was announced because of massive opposition from thousands of the affected people and other environmentalists.

China has huge interests in a natural resource-rich Burma, which is evident from a range of its investments from hydropower to mining to natural gas, with bidding competition from India. China, the biggest lender to Burma, invested US$10-billion during the 2010-2011 fiscal year. New loans worth US$7.4-billion have also been announced in the past couple of years.

Objective of Balancing Game

In these balancing acts of diplomacy, the goal of the Burmese government is to be able to cooperate with both India and China.  The Burmese government needs the support and partnership of both countries for two similar reasons – economy and politics.  Besides receiving financial assistance, Nay Pyi Taw has convinced New Delhi to remain reticent on sensitive political issues.

On the other hand, Beijing has remained a faithful partner and supporter when Burma needed it most at the U.N. Security Council in January 2007 by vetoing a draft resolution that demanded the release of all political prisoners, initiation of a widespread political dialogue, and to end military attacks and human rights abuses against ethnic minorities.

Because of similar interests and geographical proximity to Burma, both India and China are likely to remain engaged and continue their investments (of varying degrees) regardless of what may have emerged from Thein Sein and Tin Aung Myint Oo visits to the two countries.

However, if Burma chooses to build a strong diplomatic relationship with the Western democracies, particularly the United States of America, Nay Pyi Taw will have to make policy adjustments, including sacrifices.  The bilateral trade and economic investments from New Delhi and Beijing alone cannot resolve Burma’s economic woes.

Moreover, for Burma to be fully integrated into the global society, the Western sanctions have to be lifted. In order for that to happen, Nay Pyi Taw must speed up its democratic reform process and address the concerns of the international community, even if such steps entail severing ties with the two Asian giants – India and China.

Nehginpao Kipgen is a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma/Myanmar and general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com). He has written numerous academic (peer-reviewed) and non-academic analytical articles on the politics of Burma and Asia that have been widely published in Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America.

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1 Comment

  1. Nelson C.Vanliancung, Esq.

    Dear Sir,

    Very great!