After diffusing Chinese plan of BRICS + Five initiative, New Delhi has accelerated the roadway project from Myanmar to Thailand and answer Beijing’s OBOR in the region
By Mridu Kumari
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently undertook his first bilateral visit to Myanmar, he in a way offered a momentum to India’s Act East policy, an initiative which was fathered by the Narasimha Rao government in the earlier 1990s. Though the Prime Minister had visited Myanmar in November 2014 also, but it was in connection with ASEAN-India summit.
Myanmar, in keeping with India’s foreign policy agenda, fulfills key objective of being a gateway to Southeast Asia. It shares 1643-km long border with India, while 2204-km long border with China. Hence, this Southeast Asian nation’s strategic importance is immense for India. Yet while China, using its cheque book diplomacy, has enhanced its strategic footprint in Myanmar, India is trying to woo it away from China’s influence with the help of developmental assistance package which also include capacity and institution building assistance. Gradually, a strategic thrust is being given to bilateral engagement of the two countries. Signing of maritime cooperation agreement between the two countries along with 10 others during Prime Minister Modi’s recent visit to the Southeast Asian nation shows it clearly.
India is already engaged in the construction of several infrastructure related project. The Kaladan Multi-Model Transit Transport Project that will connect Kolkata port with Sittwe port of Myanmar is the first major project taken up by India. The project which is in Myanmar’s troubled state of Rakhine, is expected to be completed in 2019. Entirely being funded by India, it involves construction of 69 bridges, including several approach roads. As per a report, the trilateral highway, on completion, will connect Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar. In the second phase, it will be likely to be linked with Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam and this is what Minister of State for External Affairs Gen VK Singh told the Rajya Sabha on December 8, 2016.
“Government of India is exploring the possibility of extending the India-Myanmar-Thailand highway to Cambodia, Lao PDR and Vietnam. The extension is envisaged as an important connectivity project that would facilitate trade and promote production network across the borders,” said, Gen VK Singh in reply to a question.
Under the institution and capacity building initiative, India has established the state-of-the art Myanmar Institute of Information Technology in Mandalay. For five years period (2015-2020) India, through monitoring by the Indian Institute of Information Technology-Bangalore, would operate the MIIT. It has been established with aim to make it an institute of global repute in education and research. Then India is involved in upgradation of Yangon and Sittwe hospitals. Training of paramedic staff for these two hospitals has been completed; process is on to install high-tech health equipment in these hospitals. Advance Centre for Agriculture and Education (ACARE) is being set up in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar’s capital. The Indian Agriculture Research Institute (IARI) has been appointed as the consultant to assist in training, monitoring, curriculum formation and setting up of laboratories. Next to this agricultural institute, India is engaged in establishment of a rice bio park in Yezin in Myanmar. MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) is the consultant cum project manager of the rice bio park which will serve as training-cum-demonstration park for conversion of rice biomass into market driven products.
There are several projects in which India is directly involved. It is planning to set up a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Sittwe in Myanmar where it has already built a port. The proposed SEZ will rival Chinese SEZ located 80 km away from Sittwe. Once SEZ is built, it is will help expand India’s footprints in the Southeast Asian region. A few nations have development assistance of such a high scale. If they fail to get complete. During the recent visit of Suu Kyi, the two countries signed three agreements in the sectors of power, banking and insurance, suggesting categorically that India would continue to be a part of development in Myanmar. But in view of China’s growing footprint in this Southeast Asian nation, experts suggest, India will have actively involve itself in Myanmar.
“India can ill afford to neglect Myanmar or persist with its sluggish implementation of projects there. It must actively involve itself in Myanmar, including by collaborating with Japan, with which it enjoys fast-growing strategic cooperation. The giant Thilawa industrial zone southeast of Yangon symbolizes Japan’s investment campaign in Myanmar to gain access to a new market and counterbalance China,” noted strategic expert Brahma Chellaney said in his recent article in the Japan Times. He added that couple with greater Indian investment, New Delhi’s counter insurgency cooperation with Myanmar and India-Japan partnership on major projects can help reduce Chinese influence in Myanmar.
However, things are changing fast on geo-political level in South Asian and Southeast Asia. In keeping with this, India has fast tracked its bilateral engagement with all countries in the neighbourhood and in the extended neighbourhood. For the first time, surprising even hardcore critics of his foreign policy, Prime Minister Modi has invited all 10 members of ASEAN to become chief guests at the country’s Republic Day function next year.
In the political history of India, never has New Delhi resorted to such a measure, especially on the occasion of Republic Day. In his recent article in English daily, Minhaz Merchant who is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and author of ‘The New Clash of Civilizations,’ writes: “Modi has changed that perception. He has spent considerable political capital on boosting ties with East Asian countries. By inviting ASEAN’s ten leaders Modi has also sent a powerful message to China which has disputes with several ASEAN member-nations, including the Philippines, Thailand, Brunei and Vietnam. ASEAN countries like Singapore and Malaysia have large ethnic Indian populations, especially from Tamil Nadu. Many have strong cultural links with Indian Buddhism. All this gives Indian soft power an edge in an Asia increasingly dominated by China’s hegemonic ambitions.” But then
Modi has a track record of surprising people, it was for the first time all heads of state in South Asia and also from Mauritius thronged New Delhi to attend swearing-in ceremony of the Modi government. In October 2015, it was his government that invited all 54 African countries’ heads for the 3rd India-Africa summit in New Delhi. Making China eat a humble pie on Doklam has made it clear that India has come of its age. It refused to be a part of China-led Belt and Road Initiative.