The road to Naypyidaw

As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh receives Myanmar President Thein Sein on Friday, China will be widely and wrongly seen as the elephant in the room. Analysts at home and abroad find the temptation to view the India-Myanmar bilateral relationship through the distorting China prism very hard to resist.

Dr Singh and Sein are fully conscious of the real and undeniable triangular dynamic between New Delhi, Naypyidaw and Beijing. Both are equally aware of the new opportunities to build a bilateral relationship on its own merits rather than in opposition to China.

Realists in Delhi recognise that Myanmar and China have strong incentives for expansive bilateral cooperation. They believe, despite Sein's recent suspension of a $3.6 billion contract with China to build a controversial dam in northern Burma, the two sides will find a way to preserve and protect the "strategic partnership" they had proclaimed last May.

Delhi is more interested in getting a first-hand account of Sein's plans to reorient Myanmar at home and abroad. His surprising and positive effort to implement long overdue political reform, reclaim Myanmar's rightful role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and rebuild bridges with the United States and the West, opens up unexpected space for Dr Singh to embark on some creative diplomacy with our very special neighbour to the east.

Much like India's outreach to Vietnam, whose president Truong Tan Sang was here in Delhi earlier this week, India's engagement with Myanmar is bound to be seen as part of an unfolding geopolitical rivalry with China.

The impulse to see India's relationship with each of these two important Asian nations as a zero-sum-game that gains for one are losses for the other is a lot greater in relation to Myanmar.

While Vietnam and Myanmar are two large nations that are capable of influencing the balance of power in Asia, the latter is on the periphery of both India and China. India and Vietnam are both neighbours of China, but do not share land borders with each other. Myanmar in contrast shares long land borders with India (about 1,600 km) and China (nearly 2,200 km).

Myanmar is India's bridge to its northeastern provinces as well as continental Southeast Asia. It also shares a long maritime border with India in the Bay of Bengal. Myanmar is also the natural link between southwestern regions of China and the Bay of Bengal.

Myanmar has long been seen as the "back door" to China. In the 19th century, the British Raj explored the possibilities of opening the overland routes into China through Myanmar that could short-circuit the long sea lanes to the nation's east coast via the Malacca Straits.

In World War II, the Allies supplied the Chinese nationalist forces fighting the Japanese occupation through India and Myanmar.

Geographic proximity made eastern India, Myanmar, and southwestern China part of a single strategic theatre.

As rapid economic growth in China and India spills across their national borders, Myanmar has become more important for them in both geopolitical and geoeconomic terms.

The main challenge for Delhi's Myanmar policy is to focus on the peaceful management of this triangular relationship and developing win-win solutions over the longer term for India, Myanmar and China.

Part of the guidance for a sophisticated approach to Myanmar could come from a re-look at Jawaharlal Nehru's attempt to craft a strategy towards Myanmar in the 1950s.

Sixty years ago, in July 1951, India and Myanmar signed a treaty proclaiming the desire to build "everlasting friendship" between the world's newest democracies. India and Myanmar had constant and close consultations on China in the 1950s.

They sought to coordinate their policies towards Beijing while avoiding the impression of ganging up against it. Despite calls in both countries for a bilateral military pact, Nehru emphasised the importance of building the bilateral relationship without provoking China.

India and Myanmar, however, drifted apart from the 1960s for a number of reasons and the triangular dynamic tilted towards a stronger Sino-Burmese linkage. Meanwhile, India's peace and friendship treaty remained a piece of paper.

As India and Myanmar began to re-engage since the early 1990s, the bilateral relationship has acquired new depth and breadth. But Myanmar's international isolation, enforced by the West, has driven Naypyidaw into a tighter embrace with Beijing.

As Sein alters the internal dynamic in Myanmar towards greater political liberalisation, seeks peace with the warring ethnic minorities in northern Myanmar and an end to the nation's international isolation, there is new hope that Myanmar, with some persistence and purposefulness, can re-emerge as one of Asia's prosperous and pivotal states.

There is much India can do to help Myanmar manage this difficult transformation. Delhi must press the US and Europe to lift all international sanctions against Myanmar, contribute to internal peace-building, assist in the democratic transition, facilitate greater bilateral economic integration and promote greater physical connectivity.

This agenda is much broader than the one India had pursued in Myanmar during the last two decades competition with China for natural resources, mega projects and short-term political influence.

Dr Singh, instead, must explore with Sein the prospects for codifying the new priorities in a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement modelled after the one that Delhi and Dhaka signed last month. Such a pact will provide the basis for an equal, mutually beneficial and sustainable long-term cooperation between India and Myanmar.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi,

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