The newly-built Indo-Myanmar Friendship Gate at Moreh, a border town (photo: www.e-pao.net)
Myanmar has never really occupied an important position in India’s strategic worldview, except for brief moments when New Delhi has reached out to its neighbour before allowing ties to fall back on to autopilot. The result has been that Asian rival China has secured a large presence in Myanmar, a country that shares a 1,600 km boundary with India.
With a new administration in power in New Delhi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking to rejuvenate ties with neighbours, Myanmar is once again on the country’s radar. Seen as a gateway between India’s landlocked Northeast region and Southeast Asia, transport links with Myanmar are being upgraded.
A weekly bus service is expected to begin in October between Imphal in India’s Manipur state and Mandalay in Myanmar, covering the distance of 579 kilometres in 14 hours. At present there is no direct road link between the two countries.
India is also planning to expand its air flights to Myanmar. The national carrier Air India runs a tri-weekly service from Kolkata to Yangon, but the Indian side is now looking at allowing private Indian carriers to fly as well.
Both countries had signed an agreement for enhanced air connectivity during the 2012 visit of then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Myanmar, but no steps were subsequently taken to implement it. The Modi administration is looking to implement this agreement to increase people-to-people contacts.
Infrastructure and energy are two areas where India can scale up its cooperation with Myanmar. It is already building and upgrading 71 bridges in the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project, and is helping construct the Kalewa-Yargyi section of the Trilateral Highway that will create a road link between India, Myanmar and Thailand by 2016.
Bilateral cooperation in regional security and intelligence sharing is also being intensified. India and Myanmar signed a MoU on border cooperation on May 8. This will allow coordinated patrols and intelligence exchange to combat insurgency, arms and drugs smuggling, and human and wildlife trafficking across the Indo-Myanmar border.
The focus on upgrading bilateral ties has not come a moment too soon, given the recent media reports that Myanmar is seeking to buy JF-17 fighter jets made jointly by China and Pakistan.
China already has large economic interests in Myanmar with investments in pipelines, railways, hydropower projects and mines. The sale of defence weaponry by Beijing will be viewed with suspicion in New Delhi and will add impetus to the Indian side’s engagement with Myanmar.
The Southeast Asian country also has large gas reserves and recently began commercial sales to China. India needs to look at sourcing gas supplies from Myanmar to feed its energy-hungry industries and to secure its energy security.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is scheduled to attend the East Asia Summit/ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in August ahead of the ASEAN summit in Nay Pyi Taw. That would be a good place to announce further initiatives between the two countries.