Burma and India: the new geopolitical reality

Posted on | mei 8, 2011 | No Comments

Former Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee

In a recent interview Aung Sang Suu Kyi remarked that she was disappointed with the Indian government’s policy towards Burma. The recently freed Nobel Peace Prize winner said, ” I am saddened with India. I would like to have thought that India would be standing behind us…That it would have followed in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru”.

India’s policy towards Burma shifted markedly after 1993 under the Premiership of Rao and then from 1998-2004 under Hindu Nationalist leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Abandoning overt sympathy for the Burmese democracy movement India began openly engaging economically and militarily with the military Junta driven increasingly by the cold hard logic of realpolitik. Since then India has emerged as the 2nd largest market for Burmese exports after Thailand (approx. 17% of Burma’s exports) and the 4th largest trading partner after Thailand, China and Singapore. (Figures for 2008-09).

India’s increasing contacts with the Burmese junta are driven by two security priorities. Firstly to win the support of the Junta in combating separatist rebels in India’s northeastern states particularly making it more difficult for rebels to cross over the relatively porous 1,500 km border. To this end India has provided The Burmese military with tanks, helicopters and artillery. Of much greater significance, however, is the need to counter China’s growing influence in the country and in Southeast Asia as a whole.

Since Burma has increasingly become a pariah state in the eyes of much of the international community, and Western sanctions have taken effect, Chinese investment, aid and arms have poured into the country. India is particularly concerned about extensive Chinese military cooperation and investment in the development of naval and intel facilities including the upgrading of the naval base in Sittwe, close to the Indian city of Calcutta, and the construction of a deep-sea port at Kyaukpyu which will be located on a planned 2,000 km highway between the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming and Sittwe. Of even greater concern has been the recent construction of reconnaissance and electronic intelligence systems on the Great Coco Island, located just 18 kilometers from India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

China’s interest in Burma forms part of its so-called ‘string of pearls’ strategy: a plan to develop a series of military bases and military ties with Burma, Cambodia and Thailand in order to counter its strategic vulnerability in the Straits of Malacca. Currently 80 per cent of China’s energy imports pass through the straits, which are one of the busiest seaways in the world and narrow to only 1.5 nautical miles at this narrowest. This makes the Straits assume enormous strategic importance on the one hand but on the other makes China strategically vulnerable to a blockade. Consequently China’s string of pearls strategy has not only sought to develop military ties with its neighbors in Southeast Asia but also to develop alternative transit routes for oil, gas and other imported raw materials.

Central to this strategy is a multi-billion dollar investment in building a 2,300km oil and gas pipeline form Kyaukpyu in the Bay of Bengal to Kunming where a major new oil refinery is being planned. Such pipelines will enable China to divert oil imports from Africa and the Middle East away from the Straits of Malacca. Construction on the first phases of this was begun earlier this year.

India’s rapprochement with Burma then is an important part of its attempt to counter China’s growing influence in the region and enhance its own standing in the region. Economically the most visible sign of this is the involvement of India’s State run Gas Authority (GAIL) and ONGC’s (India Oil and Natural Gas Corp) in the Shwe gas project, a massive offshore gas field in the Bay of Bengal. GAIL owns a 10 per cent share of the A1 and A3 fields while ONGC owns a 20 per cent share. More recently ONGC and GAIL will spend $250 million on a connecting pipeline. The Shwe gas project is expected to become the single largest source of income for the Junta providing an estimated $580 million per year for the regime. In addition India has also proved the regime with a series of loans for a series of IT infrastructure projects, expertise that Than Shwe is keen to attract to help develop the area around the largely vacant administrative capital Naypidaw as an IT hub.

For all the vilification of the military Junta, the plight of its people, its embattled democracy movement and of the charismatic and disciplined defiance of Aung San Suu Kyi, the future of this country is increasingly being shaped by the changing geopolitics of the 21st Century. A century in which Asia’s two giants, China and India, will increasingly find their futures inextricably locked and interwoven.

AUTHOR: Dr. Jason Abbott
URL: http://profjabbott.blogspot.com
E-MAIL: jason.abbott [at] louisville.edu


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