Limiting Chinese influence by engaging Myanmar?

Slowly and steadily India’s engagement with Myanmar is gaining momentum. The two neighbouring countries signed as many as 10 agreements. The deals were signed in presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Myanmar President U Win Myint at New Delhi on February 27, 2020. However, it is a hard fact that for decades, India never bothered to engage its eastern neighbours politically or economically except Bangladesh which was created only in 1971. It was only in the late 1990’s that India realised the folly of completely neglecting its eastern neighbours. China’s growing clout over its neighbours did a great deal in re-shaping India’s foreign policy. In as much as India has been re-shaping its foreign policy towards its eastern neighbours, New Delhi’s engagement with Nay Pyi Taw is too late and too little compared to China. Just about 40 days before India and Myanmar signed the 10 pacts, China and Myanmar signed 33 bilateral agreements on January 18 this year. The bilateral agreements included rail and deep-sea port projects along China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), which is a part of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, linking China’s south-western interior to the Indian Ocean. China is Myanmar’s biggest trading partner and one of its largest sources of inward investment. About 1m Chinese tourists visit the country every year. China’s influence in Myanmar is so deep and widespread. Despite Myanmar’s increasing outreach to the outside world, Chinese engagement with the military and political elites in the country is still strong. Besides being the biggest supplier of military hardware to Myanmar, accounting for 61 per cent of weapons imported by Myanmar between 2014 and 2018, China has managed to carve a space in the domestic politics of Myanmar. China is indispensable to all political entities in Myanmar, including the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) and Chinese influence is visibly evident from its role in the nationwide reconciliation with ethnic rebel groups of Myanmar.
India too is not sitting idle. New Delhi is pursuing a grand project of connecting India with Myanmar and Thailand by road through its Northeastern region. A MoU has been already signed for introduction of bus service between Mandalay and Imphal which would be followed by a direct flight service. Although it is said that there is no historical enmity between India and China, there is a long standing rivalry between the world’s two most populous countries. The dispute over the demarcation of their common frontier in the Himalayan foothills, from Kashmir in the West to Arunachal Pradesh in the East is ostensibly a source of serious tension in its own right. Despite significant improvement in bilateral relations between India and China, geopolitical rivalry for influence and domination over neighbouring countries is intensifying between the two Asian giants in the post-Cold War era. Nowhere is this contest for regional hegemony between China and India more evident than in Myanmar, which occupies a critical strategic position between the two countries. This can be gleaned from New Delhi’s vigorous engagement with Myanmar. India’s Act East Policy vis-a-vis Myanmar is a two-pronged strategy. One is aimed at checking China’s growing influence over the neighbouring country and other is to tap the rich natural resources of Myanmar for Indian industries. How the North East would respond to this policy orientation of New Delhi is crucial to shape its future politico-economic destiny. India’s vigorous engagement with Myanmar will not leave the North East untouched. It will definitely make disheveling impression, a deep one which can also turn out to be a malignant scar. And only time will tell how successful is New Delhi in reducing Chinese influence in Myanmar.