India-Myanmar Relations: Need for a Multi-Sector Approach

By Sanjay Pulipaka

Vidyasagar Setu bridge between Kolkata and Howrah in West Bengal, India. Source: Kg.abhi's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Vidyasagar Setu bridge between Kolkata and Howrah in West Bengal, India. Source: Kg.abhi’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.


Last week, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi visited Myanmar to participate in the Association of South East Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) meetings and announced that India`s “Look East Policy” has become an “Act East Policy.” In the midst of numerous multilateral meetings, Prime Minister Modi had bilateral conversations with Myanmar president Thein Sein, interacted with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and also engaged members of the Indian diaspora.

The prime minister rightly noted that India’s journey east begins with Myanmar and called on both countries to strengthen bilateral ties in the fields of “culture, commerce & connectivity.” He promised to extend the services of the proposed SAARC satellite that is being built by India to Myanmar as well. In order for the Act East Policy to gain momentum, scaling up engagement with Myanmar is imperative.

India shares approximately 1,000 miles of border with Myanmar and yet it accounts for a mere 6.5 percent of Myanmar’s external trade. Sadly for a rising power, India has as a trade deficit with Myanmar, with imports amounting to $1.4 billion and exports amounting to approximately half a billion dollars.

Many factors such as Myanmar’s weak financial infrastructure and absence of land and maritime connectivity networks have contributed to such dismal trade relations. However, Myanmar’s recent tentative political transition and economic liberalization open up new opportunities for India. In order to capitalize on these openings, India should conceptualize its relations with Myanmar in three sectors.

First, the connectivity networks between northeast India and Myanmar should be expedited. The Trilateral Highway connecting India, Myanmar, and Thailand, first conceptualized in 2002, has yet to be completed. Similarly the Kaladan multimodal project, initiated in 2008 with an intent to connect Kolkata in India, Sittwe in Myanmar, and Mizoram of northeast India, is behind schedule. The rail connectivity project between the two countries has not acquired momentum. There is no denying that harsh terrain and lack of capacity on the Myanmar side may have contributed to the delays in the implementation of various projects. Nonetheless, given the strategic importance of Myanmar, Prime Minister Modi’s announcement of a special purpose vehicle to facilitate project financing and quick implementation is a step in the right direction. Along with physical infrastructure, an emphasis needs to be placed on promoting soft connectivity such as allowing students from northern Myanmar access to institutions of higher learning in northeast India. Much of this will depend upon how insurgencies and identity politics on the India-Myanmar border are addressed.

Second, enhancing the economic cooperation between India’s West Bengal, Bangladesh, and Myanmar should gain importance. If Myanmar, Bangladesh, and eastern India’s off-shore natural gas reserves are to be tapped and used efficiently, then the collaboration between these regions becomes imperative. Currently, due to sectarian violence along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, mainly in Rakhine State, such cooperation may appear to be a distant prospect. However, all three countries have decided to abide by international law in resolving the maritime disputes in the region and therefore, conceptualizing a Kolkata-Dhaka-Sittwe economic and transport corridor is not farfetched, considering that each of these port cities serves huge hinterlands.

Third, India-Myanmar cooperation should also be conceptualized in the larger Bay of Bengal region connecting the port cities and industrial regions of India with those of Myanmar. Already, there are various proposals to develop the Bay of Bengal region into an economic corridor. For instance, the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia has suggested a Mekong-India Economic Corridor (MIEC) linking Southeast Asian production networks with the Chennai-Bangalore corridor. In the MIEC framework, Dawei port in Myanmar will act as a fulcrum of economic activity. Similarly, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe has called for a Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt and as a first step has promised to work with Bangladesh in developing a coastal industrial corridor. Simultaneously, the Asian Development Bank is conceptualizing an East Coast Economic Corridor from Kolkata to Tuticorin in India. These multiple frameworks must be coalesced into a larger integrated vision for the Bay of Bengal.

For all this happen, India needs to scale up its diplomatic presence in Myanmar. Indian diplomats are doing some heavy lifting in spite of meager human resources. Further, there is a need for a multi-institutional approach with universities, cultural institutions, and scientific establishments in India reaching out to their counterparts in Myanmar. Only such full spectrum engagement will result in a successful Act East Policy.

Mr. Sanjay Pulipaka is a Fellow at the Strategic Studies Chair, ICRIER, New Delhi.


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