SHASTRI RAMACHANDARAN | 10 JANUARY, 2016
Myanmar’s Aung Saan Suu Kyi with China’s Xi Jinping
NEW DELHI: Myanmar is the focus of world attention for a number of reasons. The first, and most important one, is to see how the massive popular mandate for Aung San Suu Kyi is reconciled with the constitutional provisions where she cannot be either president or officially above the president, and the military’s need to keep its place in the architecture of power. Suu Kyi represents people’s power. President Thein Sein is the highest constitutional authority in the prevailing scheme. And, the army led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing holds the key to the state apparatus. How these three power centers come to terms for running Myanmar in transition is the biggest issue.
The second important reason, perhaps far more critical to Myanmar’s internal and external challenges, and, therefore, of greater interest to the region is how India and China play their political, economic and strategic cards, and the consequences of this for Myanmar, its ties with India and China, and India-China relations.
At a time of constitutional transition, when Myanmar, at the same time, is embarking on a new course of political and economic transformation, the elected, constitutional and military leaders of Myanmar would be acutely conscious of the two Asian giants, China and India; and, alert to every move these countries make as their role evolves. Hence, it is natural that India and China would be mindful of not only the reality, but also the perception of their role as the two biggest neighbors and partners of Myanmar.
An objective view of the present situation shows China to be the favorite with a huge advantage. As the most entrenched power in Myanmar, China is far ahead of India, and all other countries, in the emerging economic, political and strategic sweepstakes. There are over five million Chinese people in Myanmar, i.e. almost 10% of its population. Mandalay, the second largest city and former royal capital of Burma, is practically a Chinese city. People of Indian origin in the country are about 400,000.
Politically and diplomatically, too, China is ahead. When Myanmar’s military rulers were for long isolated by the rest of the world, China showed up as a friend – and has stayed on since. China is a pervasive presence and influence in Myanmar. “It’s everywhere”, as an Indian think-tank Gateway House observed in its report, ‘India & Myanmar: A New Impetus’ of October 2012. China built the state-of-the-art airport in Myanmar’s new capital, Naypitaw. It has long enjoyed a cozy equation with the powers that be in Myanmar, including its military leaders.
India began warming up to Myanmar only in the early 1990s. By then, even Thailand and Singapore were heavily invested in Myanmar. India was home to many exiles from Myanmar and supported their struggle for democracy. Suu Kyi went to school and college in New Delhi. Her father, the Burmese liberation hero General Aung San, enjoyed good relations with India’s political leadership in an earlier period.
Suu Kyi’s close personal bonds with India may be counted as a plus by New Delhi. However, China though an equally big neighbor, is a bigger presence in Myanmar. Therefore, a government led by Suu Kyi would, of necessity, attempt to balance its relations with the two Asian powers.
Earlier this year, in June, Suu Kyi visited China for talks with President Xi Jinping. The visit was marked by exceptional warmth and unambiguous assurances of support by the Chinese leadership. Such bonhomie casts doubts on the conventional wisdom of China being closer to Myanmar’s military and India closer to the elected powers.
In fact, Suu Kyi’s visit to China and her own statements suggest that this old equation may be changing. In one of her interviews to Indian media, she spoke of Myanmar’s potential to “emerge as a bridge between India and China”. Elsewhere, in an obvious reference to India and China’s race for leverage in Myanmar, Suu Kyi said that her country “should not be seen as a battleground”.
This suggests that Myanmar’s traditional close ties with China are unlikely to be diluted in the immediate aftermath of Suu Kyi’s electoral triumph. At the same time, Suu Kyi can be expected to guard against any move that could ruffle feathers in either New Delhi or Beijing as the new government would like to make the most of its relations with both.
China’s economic footprint in Myanmar is huge – and growing -- followed by that of Thailand and Singapore, with India a distant fourth. In 2014, China’s investment in Myanmar was US$ 14 billion – one-third of the total foreign investment -- and bilateral trade touched US$6 billion in 2013. In contrast, India-Myanmar trade was under US$2 billion. The Gateway House report says that 60 % of the power plants in Myanmar were built by Chinese companies with Chinese investment.
Yet Myanmar is more than an economic opportunity for India and China, although it is gateway to ASEAN for the former and to South Asia for the latter. It is a natural geostrategic buffer, and both countries have strategic and security interests. These are grounds for India-China cooperation in and with Myanmar. There is enough scope for China and India to partner Myanmar’s economic development, separately and jointly, on the basis of their respective strengths, expertise and specialties. There need be no conflict because the opportunity and potential is abundant for health competition and win-win cooperation. Such an approach of “competitive cooperation” would be productive and win-win for all three.
India-China synergies here would have a multiplier effect in the context of the Bangladesh China India Myanmar (BCIM) corridor. As Mr Eric Gonsalves, former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, told this writer: “There are economic imperatives which do not coincide with security and strategic desires. China and India will have to compromise and seek a broad area of collaboration across the region”.
The policies India and China follow in Myanmar to unlock the latter’s potential hold the key to the future of all three in Asia. Myanmar can be ground for India and China to create a new development model of cooperation and global politics.