India and Myanmar: Not just neighbours
Prime Minister Manmohan Singhs visit to Myanmar, last month, was not just neighbourly.
Though it was first in over 25 years, it came at a time when the military government in Myanmar is opening up to the idea of democracy, increasing Chinese footprint in the country, obvious Western interest and the countrys critical geostrategic location.
It was significant and timely, though not unexpected, says Dr. K Yhome of Observer Research Foundation, a think- tank based in Delhi. " The visit was a combination of factors…. New Delhi cannot wait and watch as other players take the early bird advantage in a neighbour so strategic to its interests from political, security, economic and strategic fronts," adds Dr. Yhome.
Over the years, Indias Myanmar policy has largely been driven by security and economic considerations.
However, the engagement has at least laid the ground for the two neighbours to take their relationship to a higher level. The President of Myanmar, Thein Sein was received in India last year and there have been numerous visits by our respective Foreign Ministers and other senior officials", says Neelam Deo, Former Indian Ambassador and Director of Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.
" Chinas growing footprint in Myanmar was more of a concern especially to the West, which had isolated itself from Myanmar. Access to Myanmars untapped fossil fuel resources is important for India and other oil importers", adds ambassador Deo." From a geostrategic perspective, China is wary of the changes taking place in Myanmar.
For the past two decades or so, Beijing has taken full advantage of the international isolation of Myanmar by establishing a strong footprint in the country, which today is at stake as Myanmar opens up and welcomes other players to play a role in its development", says Dr.
However, Beijing has welcomed the new developments between New Delhi and Naypyidaw, despite the state media defining PM Manmohan Singhs visit as 'Indias delude mindset'. " I think the Chinese media may be reacting to the Indian medias excessive comparing of the relationship of the two countries with Myanmar and need not be taken too seriously," says Deo.
But Beijings hunger for fuel and other natural resources can not be ignored. It has long term strategic interest in Myanmar. The country is a window to East Asia for New Delhis Look East policy. " The lifting of sanctions by Western countries had been counter productive and should have been done much earlier. The move will be very helpful in expanding bilateral trade as in the past the closing of financial channels has hampered payments for our imports from Myanmar.", says Deo.
" China has long- term strategic interests in Myanmar.
Whether it is Beijings desire to reach the Indian Ocean through Myanmar or ensuring its energy security by laying pipelines in Myanmar to take oil and gas to Chinas southern provinces. In this context, India being a major regional power and a close neighbour of Myanmar that also has the potential to provide strategic alternative to Myanmar, China would closely watch Indias policy and relations with Myanmar and see India as a strategic competitor," says Dr. Yhome.
But Chinas presence in the Indian Ocean Region will challenge Indias naval dominance and emerge as a second possible flash point between the two after South China Sea dispute. At the same time, how well American ( Western) engagement with Myanmar develops remains to be seen. It could well keep a check on Beijings military moves in the region, but could well make India uncomfortable.
As the internationally isolated Myanmar opens to the world community, it would bring economic opportunities, but will for sure change political and security dynamics of the region.