Indian grand strategy, broadly defined as its relations with the great powers, may be hard to discern right now. However, Indian lesser strategic policy — its relations with those countries with which it shares a border — is moving forward quite nicely. The arrival of the new military ruler of Myanmar, General Thein Sein, takes place at a propitious time.
The release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the progress in negotiations between her and the country’s military rulers indicates that Myanmar is closer to a political settlement than anyone could have expected even a year ago. While New Delhi has resisted the West’s attempts to sanction and isolate Myanmar, this has not been because India would not prefer an elected civilian ruler to the brutal uniformed junta that reigns today. The difference is one of tactics and nuance, not of objectives.
Pushing the Myanmar policy is the latest in a series of Indian foreign policy successes on its periphery. The end of the Sri Lankan civil war, the nearly-complete grand bargain with Bangladesh, the gentle co-option of countries like Mauritius and the Maldives, have all placed India well on the path to creating what its officials have referred to as a “peaceful periphery”. Even in Afghanistan, New Delhi has recently begun being seen as a player rather than a passive bystander. India has sought relationships in which its security interests are taken care of. It has complemented this with greater trade and investment. Finally, but one in which it has preferred to serve as an example rather than be overtly prescriptive, is the promotion of liberal democratic values. Myanmar is an interesting challenge. It is economically far more isolated and politically far more repressive than most South Asian nations. It is also a bridge between India’s neighbourhood policy and its ‘Look East’ policy. Which is why the recent events in Myanmar are so remarkable: Yangon is in effect moving on all these fronts simultaneously, and in leaps and bounds.
Not all the reasons for these successes are India’s doing. The sweeping electoral victory of Sheikh Hasina Wajed in Bangladesh’s last election, for example. It is not completely clear why the Myanmar military has become so flexible. And New Delhi can privately thank China whose overbearing behaviour over the past two years has made many countries suddenly more enthusiastic about India — evident in the recent visit of the Vietnamese president to India. But half the success of a foreign policy is to recognise and grab opportunities when fate provides them. Myanmar is a particularly important and difficult opportunity. If it is convinced that the military is genuinely looking for change, India should begin looking at carrots it can dangle before Yangon. A phased loosening of international economics sanctions is one such that India should consider lobbying for. Small scale strategy is not the stuff of page one headlines. But India’s ability to promote its interests in the global arena will be possible once it can do so at the local stage.