US-Myanmar: Engagement as nuclear pre-emption....
IMPHAL, Manipur - When a group of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ambassadors last year traveled the road from Imphal, in eastern India, to Moreh on the Myanmar border, the trip was officially arranged to show the diplomats India's emerging land bridge to Southeast Asia. Although the envoys enthused about the land link's trade possibilities, it was hard to determine how genuinely impressed they were after hours of bumping along on the 100-kilometer, pot-holed, windy road.
Yet the torturous road reaching to Myanmar is a vital link in India's business-driven "Look East" policy, a gambit aimed at expanding the South Asian country's trade, investment and influence to the
east. For that policy to succeed, however, New Delhi needs not only to upgrade the way leading to its border, but also the highways to and from Assam in northeastern India, the country's geographical gateway to Southeast Asia. Roads and infrastructure on the Myanmar side are comparatively even more decrepit.
Before Indian policymakers can build a proper highway connecting the country through Myanmar and to mainland Southeast Asia, a lasting solution must be found to the ethnic insurgencies and other security problems in its northeastern hinterlands. Local ethnic insurgents frequently collect "taxes" on trucks and other vehicles plying not only the road to Moreh, but also on most major highways in Manipur, one of northeast India's seven states.
To India's chagrin, many of those rebels - ethnic Nagas, Manipuris and Kukis - maintain sanctuaries in remote areas on the Myanmar side of the border, beyond the reach of Indian security forces. These rebel forces are also known to have obtained weapons from various clandestine sources on the Sino-Myanmar border. Some of these weapons originate in China while others are made in secret gun factories in areas in northeastern Myanmar not controlled by the central government at Naypyidaw.
Despite these difficulties and the pitiful condition of the Moreh road, trade between India and Myanmar is booming. Before 1988, apart from smuggling activities, there was scant commercial activity along the two countries' shared border. Bilateral trade more than doubled between 2005 and 2010, expanding from US$557 million to $1.2 billion. Myanmar ships mainly agricultural goods and natural resources, while India exports chiefly machinery, industrial equipment, pharmaceuticals and consumer goods. India-Myanmar trade is beginning to rival that of the booming cross-border trade between China and Myanmar, which has been brisk for almost two decades.
At the same time, it is clear that India is still lagging far behind China when it comes to accessing Myanmar's markets and mineral resources. In 2010, trade between Myanmar and China amounted to at least $3 billion, with some economic analysts putting the figure as high as $4 billion. Some of that trade passes through Myanmar to India, witnessed in the flood of Chinese-made goods in India's northeastern region. The Paona International Market in Imphal, popularly referred to as the "Moreh market" or "Myanmar market", is flush with Chinese-produced electronics, clothes, bags, household utensils and other cheap manufactures.
Pragmatic policy shift
Immediately after the 1988 pro-democracy uprising in Myanmar, India sympathized with the Aung San Suu Kyi-led opposition. Rajiv Gandhi, India's prime minister at the time, came out in open support of the movement, and New Delhi implemented policies that gave shelter to Myanmar refugees and allowed dissidents to operate freely from Indian territory. This, of course, was not for entirely altruistic reasons: the policy was viewed widely as India's way of countering China's influence in Myanmar.
India began to re-evaluate that strategy around 1993, out of concern that its policies had achieved little except to push Myanmar closer to Beijing. Even then it was obvious to policymakers that the Suu Kyi-led opposition would not assume power anytime soon. The result was a dramatic shift in policy aimed at patching up relations with Myanmar's ruling generals. In turn, Myanmar signaled to India to take greater interest in improving bilateral relations to lessen its heavy dependence on China.
India's interests in Myanmar are obvious. Apart from serving as a link to lucrative markets and trading partners in Southeast Asia, New Delhi wants to ensure that northeastern insurgents are deprived of sanctuaries and supply lines through its eastern neighbor - and to keep Chinese influence there at bay. India's rapidly expanding economy also needs energy, and New Delhi has shown strong interest in importing more oil and gas from Myanmar.
India also has plans to build a 1,200 megawatt hydroelectric power station on the Chindwin River, across from India's northeastern region, and is involved in several other infrastructure projects inside Myanmar, including major road construction projects. In short, India is busy opening its west-east corridor through Myanmar to protect its own economic as well as strategic interests.
To open the way, India has taken a number of initiatives to rid its rebellious states in the northeast - Assam, Nagaland and Manipur - of insurgents and establish permanent peace in the region. That task was made easier when Sheikh Hasina's pro-Indian Awami League government took over in Bangladesh in December 2008. Her predecessor, Khaleda Zia and the Bangladesh National Party, provided sanctuaries for insurgents who moved about freely in the capital Dhaka and the port city of Chittagong, where Indian rebel groups had received many illicit shipments of arms.
In late November 2009, Bangladesh arrested United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa and its deputy commander-in-chief Raju Barua along with eight other Assamese militants and handed them over to India. In September 2010, Rajkumar Meghen, better known as Sana Yaima, the leader of Manipur's United National Liberation Front, was arrested in Dhaka and bundled off to India. At about the same time, the main arms procurer of the Naga rebels and a frequent visitor to China, Anthony Shimray, was arrested at Kathmandu airport in Nepal and ended up in Indian custody.
While these arrests have been significant from a strategic perspective, India knows that simply detaining ethnic insurgent leaders won't be enough to achieve peace in the restive region. There are also widespread grievances among the local population that will need to be addressed before there is lasting peace and stability along India's Myanmar frontier.
New Delhi's Myanmar policy and its anti-China aspect are even clearer in the Indian Ocean. China now imports most of its oil and gas from Central Asia and the Middle East and made it clear several years ago that it intended to build a pipeline through Myanmar to avoid the clogged and potentially volatile Strait of Malacca bottleneck for its fuel transhipments.
For this purpose, and to import natural gas from the fields in the sea south of Myanmar, Beijing and Naypyidaw signed an agreement in March 2009 to also build a natural gas pipeline extending across Myanmar to China's southwestern Yunnan province. Those projects are well underway: piles of pipes can now be seen at the Jiegao border crossing between China and Myanmar, and at various sites along the highway to Kunming, Yunnan's capital.
Building such a conduit for crucial energy supplies in a foreign country would be risky without substantial political influence and an extensive signals intelligence network in the Indian Ocean sea lanes where the fuel is transported. China has large stores of both through its ties to Myanmar.
India has not taken lightly the prospect of another major player in a maritime area that it considers its own lake. This concern provides a new aspect to the age-old strategic rivalry between India and China - and another reason for India to counter China's influence over Myanmar.
New great game
Not surprisingly, the US's Barack Obama administration has expressed its support for India's "Look East" policy. On November 23, US deputy national security advisor for strategic communication Ben Rhodes said: "The President very much welcomes India's Look East approach. We believe that just as the United States, as a Pacific Ocean power, is going to be deeply engaged in the future of East Asia, so should India as an Indian Ocean power and as an Asian nation."
In January, a US naval ship visited India's Andaman Islands to conduct search and rescue operations, shipwreck salvaging and naval vessel repair exercises with their Indian counterparts. The commander of the US vessel, Derek Peterson, "lauded the cooperation" of the Indian Navy and said he was impressed with its capabilities.
That strategic exchange followed on a March 2010 visit by the USS Patriot at Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The news site of the Commander of the US 7th Fleet reported from that US naval visit that "Patriot Sailors will train with the Indian Navy; special emphasis will be put on damage-control and mine countermeasures training."
The official report also quoted Douglas Woods, one of the ship's officers, saying: "First day we pull in we got a flag football game with the Indian navy and a soccer game with the Indian navy. We also have cricket lessons for all personnel that want to go out and participate in. Indian navy personnel will provide the lessons."
Indian naval officers interviewed in Port Blair by this correspondent in January said there was nothing more to the US naval visit than basic joint training exercises. But it is hard to imagine that routine exercises were the main purpose of the US naval visits. Myanmar - and even more so China - likely watched the US-Indian naval cooperation with some trepidation.
Both Myanmar and China know that India's military has upgraded its presence on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in a bid to meet new challenges in the maritime region and to safeguard its own interests in Southeast Asia and the Malacca Strait. To be sure, there were more important issues of concern for India and the US than diving for sunken ships and teaching American sailors how to play cricket.
That said, the more recent anti-Chinese stance taken by Myanmar's new government should be music to the ears of India's security planners. India rolled out the red carpet for Myanmar President Thein Sein when he arrived in New Delhi on a three-day state visit on October 14, adding to speculation that Myanmar aims to reduce its heavy dependence on China and make more room for India. In a joint statement, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh welcomed Thein Sein's "ongoing efforts at political, economic and social reform."
In the 19th century, Arthur Conolly, an intelligence officer of the British colonial army, coined the expression "the Great Game" to describe the strategic rivalry between the then British and Russian Empires for supremacy in Central Asia. More than any other objective in the competition, the Russians sought access to the Indian Ocean.
Another "Great Game" involving India, China and the US is now playing out in Asia on the eastern fringes of the Indian subcontinent. But before the regional balance of power tilts away from China and towards India, the potholes on the road to Moreh will have to be smoothed out. Only then can China's grip on Myanmar be challenged and India able to link up more directly and strategically with Southeast Asia.
Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and author of several books on Burma/Myanmar, including the forthcoming Great Game East: India, China and the Struggle for Asia's Most Volatile Frontier.