Myanmar's changing ties with China

Myanmar’s friendship with China is no hindrance to its India ties

Neeta Lal says the recent diplomatic outreach by Suu Kyi and other Myanmese leaders reflects the country’s attempt – and need – to balance its relations with the two Asian giants

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 August, 2016, 12:44pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 August, 2016, 7:48pm

Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent high-profile visit to China, to be followed by her India sojourn later this year, is a clever balancing act to deepen ties with two major powers which can potentially transform the economic and development landscape of her country as it transitions from a reclusive dictatorship to a democracy.

Suu Kyi’s China visit has triggered endless commentaries in the Chinese and Indian media about which country carries more influence over Myanmar. While the Indian commentariat is emphasising the Indo-Burmese religious-cultural affinity and shared democratic values, the Chinese press has focused on Suu Kyi’s choice of China for her first big foreign visit as an indicator of the latter’s greater significance in Myanmar’s diplomacy.

Suu Kyi shows she’s a dab hand at diplomacy with Beijing visit

However, pragmatic statesman that Suu Kyi is, her decision to visit China first seems driven more by necessity than amity. During her five-day visit, the 71-year-old Nobel laureate’s discussions with the foreign minister, premier and president, as well as political bigwigs and business leaders, focused on issues that can buttress Myanmar’s mammoth task of nation-building – like reviving stalled China-funded projects, seeking bilateral cooperation in tackling ethnic problems along the border, as well as expanding economic ties.

Beijing has expressed support for ethnic reconciliation in Myanmar and assistance in settling its ethnic issues. Myanmar has, in turn, endorsed the proposed Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridor (over which India has serious reservations) and has also refrained from commenting on one of the most explosive issues facing the region today – the South China Sea.

However, unlike China, which has used economic diplomacy to forge strong links with Myanmar, Delhi has followed no solid plan. Even though, like China, India is one of the few countries that maintained close links with Myanmar during its military rule, its incoherent foreign policy – characterised by support for democratic forces as well as engagement with the junta – failed to enthuse Myanmese leaders, especially Suu Kyi.

However, all that looks set to change now. A flurry of high-level bilateral visits and exchanges are in the pipeline, giving both countries an opportunity to reset bilateral ties after years of lull. India’s foreign minister Sushma Swaraj and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval have already visited Naypyidaw. And Myanmar’s President Htin Kyaw is in Delhi this week to further cooperation.

Naypyidaw realises that warming up to Delhi can also help minimise its overdependence on the Chinese while diversifying its economic and development portfolios. Its outreach to Delhi is also guided by the need to engage more robustly with neighbours after the country’s protracted isolation. As Asia’s third-largest economy, with a market of 1.2 million people, India can be just the ticket for Myanmar’s fledgling economy.

Why ‘love thy neighbour’ is still great advice for China and India

For New Delhi, Myanmar brings the distinct advantages of being a vital buffer state between itself and China, as well as a crucial link to the economic corridor, which is part of Beijing’s Silk Road plan. Myanmar is also a crucial gateway for India’s “Look East” initiative for Southeast and East Asia, and an imperative to secure its fraught northeast region, where cross-border ethnic groups and rebels have been fomenting trouble for years.

Given these realities, both India and China will be jockeying hard for Myanmar’s attention. The emerging India-China-Myanmar dynamic makes for interesting theatre that also carries significant geopolitical implications for the region and the world.

Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based editor and senior journalist