As Aung San Suu Kyi-led government completed its first 100 days in power recently, its evolving foreign policy approach — particularly relations with the immediate neighbours — deserves a close appraisal.
Of the triangular relationship involving China, Myanmar and India, the China-Myanmar arm has been marked by dynamism; the Myanmar-India equation has been less active; and China-India ties have come under new stress in recent months. The triangle has thus been undergoing perceptible movements before it assumes stability and a set pattern.
Rulers change in Myanmar, but China remains its most important consequential and problematic partner. Well-known scholar Thant Myint-U characterises Myanmar’s history with China as “complex and troubled”. The northern neighbour, sharing the largest land border, has immense resources, and ambitious plans over and above what it has already achieved in the domain of infrastructure linkages, trade, investment, projects and defence cooperation.
Concerning the new government’s two priorities — economic development and ethnic reconciliation, China can do much to help as well as to hurt. Latest reports indicate that the Chinese are pushing hard for the revival of $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam project, suspended by the previous Thein Sein government. Besides, they seek a clear confirmation of support for new mega projects, already sanctioned, such as a special economic zone and deep sea port in Kyaukpyu, a huge refinery in Dawei near the Thai border, and a large business district in Muse in northern Myanmar.
Myanmar is apparently weighing how much of the above package would be in its interest. The government has to factor in the unpopularity of the Chinese due to the massive inroads and dependence created in the past. China’s leverage on Burmese ethnic groups like the Kokang and Wa, which are periodically engaged in armed conflict with the Burmese military, is highly relevant. They can be reined in or unleashed, depending on how much accommodation Myanmar is willing to show on economic proposals. For long, the Chinese have “played both sides”, as a western publication put it aptly, “signing deals with the Junta while funding rebel groups.” In order to expand the room for manoeuvre, Naypyitaw under Suu Kyi and with the army’s support, will continue the Thein Sein approach of forging close economic cooperation with Japan and ASEAN partners — Thailand and Singapore.
In this context, Myanmar-India interactions could have been more active. By itself, India cannot match Chinese resources, gains and advances in Myanmar, but in conjunction with US, Japan and ASEAN, it is in a position to contribute more for enhancing the relationship and empowering Myanmar. The Indian authorities are justifiably anxious about border security issues and interested in trade expansion, but the canvas of conversation needs to be expanded.
The triangle’s third arm, China-India relations, has been marked by some tensions due to divergences on several important issues, particularly in the aftermath of discussions regarding India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The grouping’s session in Seoul was a setback, but not a disaster. The forthcoming BRICS Summit in Goa presents an opportunity for the two sides to change course and improve the bilateral equation.
On the US-China geopolitical rivalry, also known as “the Great Game in the East”, which has been unfolding in recent years, the Suu Kyi government can be expected to be sufficiently “non-aligned.” It would not take sides nor would it offend either party. On this larger question as well as on ties with China and with India, it will promote an equilibrium that suits its own interests.
In the 1950s Prime Minster U Nu used to say that Burma was “hemmed in like a tender gourd among the cacti.” Well, this gourd has a mind of its own and seems to know where it is heading.
Rajiv Bhatia is a former ambassador to Myanmar and distinguished fellow, Gateway House
The views expressed are personal