In December 2018, Indian President Ram Nath Kovind paid a five-day visit to provide assistance to Myanmar in terms of the planned repatriation of Rohingya refugees who had fled to Bangladesh and to enhance the trade cooperation between the two countries. It was the second high-ranking visit from the Indian side within the past two years, and it followed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Myanmar tour in September 2017 during which both sides reached 11 agreements on infrastructure and maritime security cooperation.
On the Myanmar side, President Htin Kyaw visited India in August 2018, four months after his first China tour. During this visit, both sides agreed to deepen cooperation in the areas of agriculture, trade, energy, health, physical connectivity, and border management. In October, Aung San Suu Kyi, State Councillor and Foreign Minister of Myanmar, went to India on a state visit, during which two agreements were signed on energy cooperation and Indian training for Burmese banking and insurance staff.
The fast-growing relations between India and Myanmar have attracted rising attention from China where the Chinese scholars believe that India is trying to compete with China through the fostering of close relations with Myanmar. To be sure, India has become a major foreign partner for Myanmar and is playing an important role in Myanmar’s great power balancing act. Actually, India and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) have always been the two main actors that Myanmar has employed to balance Chinese influence. Moreover, India has advanced its economic and strategic interests in Myanmar and gained a big foothold in Southeast Asia in the past decades, which could balance China’s efforts to expand its influence in South Asia via Myanmar. Finally, there are no big troubles in Indo-Myanmar relations while the sensitive bilateral issues — such as the Myitsone dam cancellation and the ethnic conflicts in northern Myanmar — have adversely affected the relationship between China and Myanmar.
Nevertheless, Chinese scholars concluded that India has failed to challenge China’s position in Myanmar and has imposed negligible adverse impacts on Sino-Myanmar relations. First of all, India is not a permanent member of United Nations Security Council (UNSC), and thus could not provide strong support for Myanmar which was heavily accused of human rights abuses in Rakhine State from the West. Actually, Myanmar has revived the cordial relationship with China since National League for Democracy (NLD) came to power largely due to China’s support for and assistance to Myanmar regarding the Rohingya crisis. While India was under pressure to take the lead in imposing pressure upon Myanmar for the repatriation of Rohingyas who fled to the states bordering Myanmar, even though it had expressed support for the NLD government’s crackdown on terror groups in Rakhine, avoided criticizing the alleged human rights violations against the Rohingyas, and tried to be involved in the planned repatriation of Rohingyas between Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Second, despite the fact that India has built close connections with the Burmese senior officials, it is hard to compete with China which is located at the center of Myanmar’s diplomacy. In fact, India has never been perceived as a peer-competitor of China in Myanmar because of its growing but relatively limited influence in the region. For example, although India has constructed a number of cross-border infrastructure and transportation projects in Myanmar in order to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, most of them are delayed and have thus damaged the national image of India. Given this, there is a widespread feeling in Myanmar that the “Indian government promises much but delivers little”. India, therefore, could not be a reliable partner for Myanmar in the area of economic cooperation. Hence, China’s concerns over the strategic projects financed by Indian companies have been reduced dramatically due to this bad record.
The budding Indo-Myanmar relations, on the one hand, exert little influence to China; but, on the other hand, they provide an opportunity for both sides to cooperate in Myanmar.
Thirdly, Chinese experts realize the value of India in Myanmar’s great power diplomacy, but they don’t think Myanmar would allow or support India’s attempts to undermine Chinese interests in Myanmar. Actually, resistance from the Burmese society presents another barrier for India’s further engagement with Myanmar. Historically, Myanmar was exploited by both the British and India when it was integrated into the British Raj. Therefore, there were prevailing feelings in Myanmar that the Indians are the lackeys and accomplices of the British because the local Burmese were forced to be ruled by the Indian officials, administrators, and police in the British Empire. After independence, the Myanmar government initiated a number of measures to strengthen the economic interests of Burmese against the foreigners, which generally hit the Indians, and thus aroused deep resentment and strong protests among the Indians in both Myanmar and India. Since the generals came to power in a military coup in September 1988, the political use of xenophobia and nationalism has evolved into an effective tool for the junta in defending external threats. Given its traumatic colonial legacy as well as its strong nationalist stance, Myanmar has never been enthusiastic about wholly embracing India’s eastward projection except for its immediate interests.
Given the peaceful democratic transition in Myanmar, there were enthusiastic expectations from India for closer ties with Myanmar. However, the pro-democracy forces inside and outside Myanmar has harbored strong resentment against India for betraying their democratic ideals in the early 1990s. For instance, in 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the NLD, said: “It saddened me that India, the largest democracy in the world, was turning its back on democracy in order to maintain good relations with the military government,” when she interviewed by the Indian media several days before the landslide election in that year. Although India has already re-embraced the Burmese democrats in and out of Myanmar, the resentments and suspicions about the Indian government would not be eliminated soon.
The strong resistance from the Burmese communities indicates another basic obstacle to India’s push eastwards. Various Indian investment projects, particularly the resource programs, have faced serious accusations from the Burmese locals. For instance, the 1,200-MW Htamanthi Dam, financed by India, was blocked due to demonstration campaigns initiated by thousands of displaced villagers in north Myanmar. Facing similar protests, another major dam project, the 642-MW Shwezaye hydroelectric plant, has also had to back out owing to the prohibitive cost of constructing the project and the increasing political pressure from indigenous environmental groups. The Indian resource companies, therefore, have been labeled as foreign exploitation as well as criminals in environmental issues, hampering India’s economic expansion in Myanmar.
To conclude, the budding Indo-Myanmar relations, on the one hand, exert little influence to China; but, on the other hand, they provide an opportunity for both sides to cooperate in Myanmar. In other words, the interactions between China and India in Myanmar are not necessarily a zero-sum game. Rather, both sides could promote cooperation in the areas of trade and investment within the regional cooperation schemes, such as the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM), so as to create win-win cooperation in the region. Given the warm relations between China and India after the Wuhan Summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian President Modi, it’s the best time for both sides to embark on economic cooperation and policy coordination in Myanmar.