During 2016, India concentrated on furthering its ties with Myanmar which is an undeniable lynchpin of its Act East Policy, writes Obja Borah Hazarika for South Asia Monitor.
By Obja Borah Hazarika
Myanmar continued to be a country of immense focus for India in 2016 especially in light of its significant place in New Delhi’s Act East Policy. The ties between the two countries during the year were strengthened in the political, maritime, commercial and connectivity aspects. India was keen to maintain close and cordial relations with Myanmar as it continued to be in the throes of change after the democratic elections held in November 2015.
As Myanmar tackles its own domestic challenges which include ethnic strife and communal imbroglios, India continued to be supportive of the manner in which Naypitaw has sought to address these issues. India is keen to ensure a smooth transition to democratic rule in Myanmar, a country which is strategically and economically vital for India. During 2016, engagements between India and Myanmar were visible in the form of high-level visits, connectivity enhancement, cooperation against insurgents, augmentation of maritime relations, and cooperation in the banking, business and energy sectors, among others.
One of the major highlights of India-Myanmar ties during 2016 were the several high-level visits between the two countries. These included visits by Myanmar’s President U Htin Kyaw and Foreign Minister Aung Sang Suu Kyi to India as well as the visit by Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Myanmar. A string of other military and political officials also exchanged visits during the year lending vigour to the overall diplomatic relations between the two nations. Such rapid visits at the high-level symbolize the growing tenacity of the ties between India and Myanmar. Being neighbours, both India and Myanmar are keen to ensure that their relationship expands to include greater cohesion, cooperation and consistency.
Harnessing the opportunities which each has to provide the other was the main objective of their engagements. Due to their geographic contiguity, India and Myanmar continued to place emphasis on exploring greater connectivity avenues which would enable greater commercial exchanges between the two. With regard to this, during President U Htin Kyaw’s India visit in August 2016, two Memorandums of Understanding were signed relating to the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway.
Additionally, India expressed its intent to Myanmar in repairing the Kalewa-Yarggyi road segment and constructing or upgrading 69 bridges on the Tamu-Kyigone-Kalewa section of the Trilateral Highway. This highway is vital for India and Myanmar as well as to Thailand as it has the potential to vastly increase seamless connectivity over land between these three countries. Prompt completion of this project would provide a much-needed fillip to providing connectivity to Northeast India and Myanmar as well as boost India’s Act East policy which aims to shore up holistic ties with Myanmar and other South East and East Asian nations. Connectivity was thus the mainstay of the high-level visits to India.
Another step to promote connectivity was undertaken when the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) and India Ports Global Private Limited (IPGPL) signed an MoU for implementation of additional works on the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project (KMTTP) in Myanmar on June 22, 2016. As part of the MoU, both parties will be implementing three additional works on the KMTTP at an estimated cost of Rs 476 crore. These three projects are Container handling facilities at Paletwa and Sittwe, Operation and Maintenance (OM) of the completed works and removing wrecks in Sittwe Port basin area. The Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project (KMTTP) seeks to enhance connectivity between the landlocked north eastern states and Myanmar. It will pave the way for greatly enhanced trade and commerce across the border and will facilitate cultural and social integration as well.
Moreover, in a bid to foster close ties and enhance connectivity between the neighbouring countries as well as to enunciate the geographical proximity of the nations, the first India-Myanmar-Thailand (IMT) Friendship Car Rally was flagged off from Shillong on November 20, 2016. The itinerary of the rally included a 19-day tour covering 5,722 km.
Tackling insurgency was another area where both countries made some progress during the year. Insurgents along the India-Myanmar border have caused large-scale havoc in the region in the past. Such insurgent groups have been traced to locations beyond India’s borders to territories inside neighbouring countries like Myanmar. In the high-level visits, both parties emphasized the importance they attached to helping each other ensure that activities of the insurgents were stymied.
Myanmar showed keenness in ensuring that its territory was not used by insurgents for mounting attacks in north-east India. Promoting security and stability along the 1,640-km land border shared by the two countries was thus the mainstay of both Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Myanmar as well as President U Htin Kyaw’s visit to India.
Increasing cooperation in various activities related to energy cooperation was also explored by the two countries during the year. Myanmar being an energy rich country and India being an energy-hungry nation ensured that cooperation on energy formed another significant aspect of their engagement. During the Myanmarese President’s visit to India, an MoU was signed on renewable energy to ensure cooperation on hydrocarbon resources. The two countries also agreed to expand cooperation in oil exploration and hydrocarbon pipeline construction by Indian companies. Other economic and commercial aspects of cooperation explored by the two countries included agriculture, banking, power and energy, and trade in pulses. Special emphasis was given to promoting cooperation on traditional medicines in which an MoU was also signed.
Yet another area where cooperation between India and Myanmar was enhanced was in the maritime dimension. The fourth edition of the India-Myanmar Coordinated Patrol (IMCOR) was undertaken from February 13 to 16, 2016. It was conducted along the India and Myanmar maritime boundary by navies of the two countries. These two countries have been conducting bilateral IMCOR along the Maritime boundary since 2013 as part of the overall India-Myanmar defence relations. During the event, the Indian Navy and Myanmar Navy also signed a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for IMCOR. The SOP will ensure smooth conduct of coordinated patrols between the two countries that share a maritime boundary in the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal. India has similar agreements with Indonesia and Thailand. Such coordinated patrols are significant as they help the navies of participating countries coordinate manoeuvres and synchronize responses in case of terrorist activities in the high seas.
There was also some progress in India-Myanmar ties with regard to the banking sector. India’s largest lender State Bank of India (SBI) opened its branch in Yangon, the former capital city of Myanmar, in October 2016. With this, the SBI became the first domestic bank of India to open a branch in Myanmar.
Other advances in the bilateral relations included the India Myanmar Business Conclave which was hosted by India at Yangon on May 18-20, 2016. A 25 member business delegation from India led by Nirmala Sitharaman, India’s Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Commerce & Industry (CIM), attended the Conclave. In order to boost economic exchanges, India extended economic preferences to Myanmar along the lines of opening up of 96.4 per cent of tariff lines at zero duty for Myanmar under its Duty Free Tariff Preference scheme.
Additionally, a liberal access was made available by India for services including a visa fee waiver for applicants from Myanmar to facilitate their access to Indian Business and Employment visas. Other matters discussed during the conclave included intensive sessions on matters relating to agriculture, manufacturing and employment, IT, health, education, skill development, power & renewable energy, connectivity (air, sea, land), tourism and hospitality, SEZs, industrial zones and finance.
Thus, during 2016, India concentrated on furthering its ties with Myanmar which has been one of the main aims of its Act East Policy. Myanmar is crucial for India to materialize its Act East Policy as it is the only South East Asian country which shares a border with India making it the gateway to the ASEAN nations. Supporting Myanmar’s efforts at ethnic reconciliation and ending communal tensions was thus one of the stated aims of India in the past year as a peaceful Myanmar would be conducive for India to attain its larger goals of enhanced economic and security cooperation with the Southeast Asian region.
India’s Act East Policy aims to greatly enhance India’s ties with the ASEAN countries, especially with Myanmar due to its location, energy reserves and ability to aid India in tackling the insurgency menace. Along with a long shared land border, Myanmar and India also share a maritime border making it even more significant for India to engage it in a holistic manner.
In a nutshell, during 2016, India continued to pursue close and cooperative relations with Myanmar which is an undeniable lynchpin of its greater Act East Policy.
(Obja Borah Hazarika is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Dibrugarh University, Assam. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to email@example.com)