After Myanmar’s elections, the world is watching what happens. How India and China play their political, economic and strategic cards matters greatly both for Myanmar and for India-China relations.
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 5 million ethnic Chinese in Myanmar, almost 10 percent of its population. In contrast, there are only about 400,000 people of Indian origin in the country.
Politically and diplomatically, too, China is ahead. When Myanmar’s military rulers were long isolated by the rest of the world, China showed up as a friend – and has stayed as such since. China has a pervasive presence and influence in Myanmar. China helped built the state-of-the-art airport in Myanmar’s capital, Nay Pyi Taw.
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. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy which just won a landslide election victory, went to school and college in New Delhi. Suu Kyi’s father, 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, has 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, 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 cumulative foreign direct investment in Myanmar was $14 billion – one-third of the total foreign investment – and bilateral trade reached $6 billion in 2013. In contrast, India-Myanmar trade was under $2 billion.
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 geo-strategic 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.
As Eric Gonsalves, an experienced Indian diplomat, told me: “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.