India and Myanmar: Some Chinese Perceptions and Linkages

Manmohan Singh’s visit to Myanmar in late May – the first by an Indian Prime Minister in 25 years – inevitably brings up comparisons to what China does in Myanmar. It is therefore interesting to see how the Chinese themselves perceived the visit.

While the Chinese Foreign Ministry did its job by being diplomatic and welcoming the Indian visit, the state-run Global Times – known for its vituperative comments about China’s rivals – had an editorial titled “Myanmar trip shows India’s deluded mindset,” (29 May) that seemed designed to offend. Yet, the article also captures the many lines of thinking that operate simultaneously in China when it comes to India.

While dismissing any notion of competition with India, the article interestingly goes on to say, “[m]ost Chinese want to see an open and democratic Myanmar. They do not wish the country to remain controlled by the junta, isolated from every country but China.” There are several implications to such a statement. One, China is suggesting that openness and democracy are not limited to India and the West. This also implies that democracy can take various forms and that both Myanmar’s exercise in what the generals have called ‘disciplined democracy’ and whatever the Chinese may call ‘democratic’ are also legitimate forms of democracy.

Two, from a geopolitical perspective, the junta’s isolation only adds to the list of China’s global responsibilities. Like North Korea, Myanmar too has hitherto been perceived as a country where China wields extraordinary influence and so Beijing is automatically blamed for any misdemeanor by the regime there. The more Myanmar’s generals open up, the less the pressure on China.

the Stillwell Road enters Myanmar from India at the Pangsau Pass

Further, the article says, “Myanmar’s opening up will not weaken its bilateral ties with China. This is the confidence China has.” India perhaps has reasons for confidence of its own, given the reforms underway currently in Myanmar and Prime Minister Singh’s visit attempted to encourage these changes by offering for example, to train Myanmar’s parliamentarians.

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s borders are dominated by various ethnic groups with many of them in open conflict with the central government. Without a workable federal arrangement, peace and stability in Myanmar are going to be difficult to achieve and the country’s reforms will be in jeopardy. And for all its flaws, the nearest such working model is India’s.

Those Indian flaws are also reason for some of the focused aid and development programmes that New Delhi has initiated during the Prime Minister’s visit. While Myanmar is India’s gateway to Southeast Asia, the Northeast, India’s gateway to Myanmar, is similarly beset with ethnic insurgencies, poverty and under-development. Thus, agreements signed between New Delhi and Naypyitaw on border areas development including the creation of border haats for trading and on constructing various infrastructure projects are designed to bring in development and stabilize their common frontier areas.

In this, one could argue that India is following in China’s steps. For example, the Global Times editorial declared that China welcomed investments in Myanmar from India and the West because, “a prosperous Myanmar would also create more opportunities for Chinese provinces on their common border.” In fact, it should be noted that China’s Myanmar policy is partly run out of Kunming, capital of the bordering province of Yunnan.

Yunnan has much deeper political and economic interests in Myanmar than does Beijing given that it is poorer in comparison to China’s coastal provinces and sees Myanmar and Southeast Asia as means of achieving prosperity and connectivity to global markets.  Thus, Yunnanese business interests are very active in Myanmar and the energy pipeline being pushed from the Bay of Bengal to China through Myanmar is largely an initiative supported by Kunming.

Such provincial stakes in economic foreign policy are an important aspect of the Chinese political system. While a natural corollary of China’s economic reforms, it is nevertheless an extraordinary feature in an authoritarian dispensation. While India’s Northeast states have a history of cultural, political and economic contact with the countries that surround them and a natural interest in what goes on across their international borders, democratic India has so far not allowed its states free rein to develop these linkages and interests.

An India-friendly government in Dhaka and a reforming Myanmar offer New Delhi great opportunities to do so now. It would also be an important part of consolidating democratic processes both in India’s northeast and in its eastern neighbours.

Originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, “India, Myanmar and China: Meeting at the Borders,” DNA (Mumbai), 4 June 2012, p. 11.

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