In on the ground floor
The entry of Americans into Myanmar is likely to benefit India. Sreeram Chaulia writes.india Updated: Nov 24, 2011 22:25 IST
The near simultaneous announcements by the US that secretary of State Hillary Clinton will visit Myanmar next month and by pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi that she will contest in an upcoming by-election have altered the geopolitical dynamic dramatically. Clinton will be the first high-ranking US diplomat to set foot in Myanmar in over 50 years, marking a turnaround in US foreign policy that until recently was based on isolating the Southeast Asian nation for its abominable human rights record.
The US's entry into Myanmar as a major actor is occurring after the nominal civilian regime in Naypyidaw cancelled a controversial hydro-electric dam project that was to be built with Chinese support. For long, Myanmar was a client State of China, a factor that was central to the US's distaste of it. That Myanmar could defy the Chinese is being seen as a sign that political space exists for the US to work as a facilitator of the democratisation process in Myanmar.
President Barack Obama's characterisation of Myanmar as a State with "flickers of progress" shows how a conjuncture has been created whereby Suu Kyi will work within the military-ordained system but will aim to eventually upend it, and the junta-backed civilian government will back away from China.
The most worried player in this denouement is China, which has reasons to fear American encroachment in Myanmar. In the larger context of the US's emphasis on vacating Europe and West Asia and focusing on the containment of China in Asia, Myanmar is a strategic location, where the impending presence of US diplomats, bureaucrats, corporations and civil society organisations can severely dent Chinese investments in Myanmar.
Although government officials in India and China have publicly denied involvement in a tug-of-war for controlling Myanmar or preventing it from falling under the influence of New Delhi or Beijing, the cooperation offered by both Asian powers to the military junta had this larger geopolitical purpose. Now, with the advent of the Americans into the field, the balance will be altered and it is likely to benefit India, not China.
When it came to their respective foreign policies on Myanmar, the US and India have had differences. India had cited neighbourhood security compulsions, economic needs to befriend the junta since the 1990s, while the US snubbed Myanmar. Now, with Clinton's visit, India has a chance to revisit its hands-off approach towards the question of regime change in Naypyidaw.
That a democratic Myanmar under Suu Kyi is morally as well as strategically the best option for India vis-à-vis the Chinese shadow across our eastern borders is a truism that New Delhi has ignored for long in the name of 'realpolitik'. America's jump into the foray now requires that India and the US act jointly to assist Suu Kyi and her supporters to achieve democracy.
Singlehandedly, India was a mismatch as a counterweight to China in Myanmar, since Beijing was always more dominant and closer to the junta than New Delhi. But an India-US team, premised on the situational geopolitical commonality of interests, can tilt Myanmar decisively away from authoritarianism and Chinese stranglehold.
India must be prepared to take advantage of fissures opening up within the junta and the ruling establishment in Myanmar. With the US coming to Myanmar in a big way, reducing the Chinese footprint and rolling it back demands grand strategic acumen in New Delhi to recalibrate its policy towards Myanmar.
China has already begun reformulating its own strategy towards Myanmar. Hardliners within the junta fear American attempts to open up a hitherto closed economy and society and will seek Beijing's intervention to prevent slippage of military absolutism. As a player of great power politics, China does not meekly surrender or share its sphere of influence with neighbours like India, what to speak of the US. Intense international jockeying has started for Myanmar's future and India must adapt.
Sreeram Chaulia is vice-dean, Jindal School of International Affairs. The views expressed by the author are personal.