Challenges to India–Myanmar relations and their impact on the Act East Policy

Douminlal Kipgen
In the early 1990s, as the global economy was expanding, India’s ‘Look East Policy’ (LEP) signalled a strategic change in its international outlook from the Cold War era. This involved a renewed foreign policy (‘Act East Policy’ (AEP) push to deepen interactions with the Southeast Asian region. The ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) bloc, established in 1967, has become a global economic powerhouse in the 21st century and India, for its part, views itself as a key trading and investment partner in this region. It thus places great importance on maintaining a cordial relationship with Myanmar, which serves as a key gateway to Southeast Asia.
The North East region, which was once considered India’s ‘frontier’, has been the driving force behind this policy. The region has vital importance as it shares maritime (593 nautical miles) and land borders (1,643 kilometers) with Myanmar, which in turn acts as India’s conduit to Southeast Asia. The region, particularly the State of Manipur, is central to this policy along with the states of Nagaland and Mizoram which are physically connected and strategically important for improving relations with Myanmar. The region serves as a corridor for progress and prosperity and therefore improving the land, sea and air connectivity remains a critical component of the policy. It is a mixture of geo–economics and geo–politics which puts India’s North East region at the core of its AEP.
Relations between India and Myanmar (Burma) have existed for a long time contrary to popular perceptions. Three Anglo–Burmese Wars took place between 1824 and 1885, and as a result, the border region came under British rule. Throughout the colonial era, leaders involved in the struggle for independence developed a shared sympathy among themselves. Myanmar (then Burma) was part of a single British Indian entity until its separation in 1937. India would gain independence on August 15, 1947, while Myanmar would do so on January 4, 1948. During the Cold War, leaders of both countries chose not to align themselves with either of the two power blocs in recognition of their shared interests. India’s Jawaharlal Nehru and Myanmar’s U Nu were both proponents of the non–aligned ideologies and perspectives on world matters, which aided in the development of friendly relations. To strengthen these bilateral ties, the Treaty of Friendship was signed between the two countries on 7th July 1951. To date, Myanmar remains an extremely important immediate neighbor of India. However, due to international political pressure, the relationship between Myanmar and India could not be sustained systematically. As memories of the shared colonial era faded alongwith the subsequent toppling of the democratically elected Government in Myanmar, relations between the two cooled and failed to realize the potential of the early years.
The border between India and Myanmar has been the scene of ethnic conflict for many years. In the early 1990s, India engaged in military cooperation with the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) for several reasons in order to achieve certain goals and safeguard its interests. This defense engagement with the Tatmadaw has gradually expanded, focusing on matters of mutual concern. These coordinated military deployments in the border region has opened the door for several projects of the policy. India’s underdeveloped North Eastern region as well as backward regions of western Myanmar can benefit from a secure border region as this can lead to development and an increase in infrastructure connectivity projects.
Although the LEP began as an economic initiative, it has since taken shape on the political, strategic, and cultural dimensions, eventually leading to the establishment of an institutional mechanism for dialogue and cooperation. New Delhi has reoriented its relations to a strategic level partner to several other countries of Southeast Asia. The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi–Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), the Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD), the Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC), East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) are among the regional organizations with which India intends to strengthen its engagement. It pin points doable cooperative projects in the political–security, economic, and cultural trajectories to strengthen its ties.
The AEP has paved the way for bridging South Asia and Southeast Asia; thus, collaboration on infrastructure, manufacturing, skill management, urban renewal, and trade aims to spur regional prosperity. It looks to strengthen and promote cultural ties, economic cooperation, and strategic relationship with the wider Indo–Pacific region. This would mean the continued participation of the various stakeholders at the multilateral organizational levels. Myanmar offers hope for the policy; and therefore, a consistent effort to increase connectivity and develop infrastructure has the potential to bring prosperity to a large portion of the population. India’s neighborhood policy is seen as an effective means of conflict transformation, a holistic approach would contribute to regional peace and development in the coming years.
With the rising maritime competition among regional powers, Myanmar has become increasingly important for India in terms of land, sea, and air connectivity. India should continue to build its influence in Myanmar in whatever way is practical to counter China’s expanding influence. India’s economic assistance involves efforts to improve Myanmar’s ports and coastal infrastructure. Furthermore, India’s policy in Myanmar must form a coherent part of a larger Southeast Asia policy in order to counter China’s growing influence in the wider ASEAN and the Indian Ocean region. India–Myanmar ties must make use of bilateral commonalities such as shared commercial and cultural traditions, tourism attractions, and other crucial foreign exchanges in an economy that is becoming more interdependent.
India’s participation in the region’s security architecture can only move forward if its relationship with Myanmar remains stable. Collaboration between both countries is essential for engagement with the wider ASEAN region, which provides a plethora of opportunities and enables an environment conducive to peace and prosperity.  The policy will likely involve India playing a significant role in the evolving East Asian security dynamics. A strategic partnership with Myanmar will also result in a long–term strategic partnership with the ASEAN region as a whole, as well as its relationship with the countries of the far east. India’s entry into various regional organizations would help to counterbalance China’s influence. Additionally, China’s growing maritime confrontations in the South China Sea are also an opportunity for India to enhance its role in the security architecture of the region.
India would have more opportunities to expand trade, interpersonal relations, and business with Southeast Asia with the continued development of its North East region. The success of this policy is dependent on the political vision and will of the authorities of both India and Myanmar. The region would require a comprehensive economic strategy that can both sustain the local economy and motivate regional integration. New Delhi and Naypyidaw must focus on tackling shared challenges, such as regional integration, insurgency, sectarian conflict, socioeconomic upheaval among ethnic groups, refugees, and migration among others to increase engagement. The complexity of India’s regional security environment forces it to take a more nuanced approach in its interactions with Myanmar which can enable it to secure its National interests. Hence, maintaining friendly relations remains critical and a priority in the coming years.
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