India has sometimes treated its foreign policy as morality play when actually it is hard business involving national interests. The Indian government, especially under Manmohan Singh, often jumped on to the Western bandwagon any time a military in some country displaced a civilian regime charging human rights violation, etc. The Modi dispensation has to resist the impulse to side with the US now that Washington is embarked on its usual sanctions diplomacy vis a vis Myanmar — India’s valued neighbour and friend. India should affect a strictly hands-off policy, and do what Myanmar’s fellow ASEAN members have done — claim it is an internal matter that brooks no outside interference of any kind by any other country. But discreetely convey to the senior General in-charge, Min Aung Hlaing, that Delhi is in his corner and can depend on India for help and material assistance.
Aung San Suu Kyi had tremendous democratic credentials but over recent years had almost become a stalking horse for Xi’s China. She rode the Chinese Belt-Road-Initiative (BRI)-derived China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) in the hope of consolidating the hold of her party — the National League for Democracy (NLD), and her personal grip, on the government and country, win popular approval for the prospective prosperity the CMEC is suppoed to deliver and thus gradually to sideline the Generals.
The Myanmar military, it must be appreciated, has always been wary of Beijing and, to the extent the circumstances permitted, sought to keep the Chinese at the proverbial arm’s length. It is precisely the distance that the NLD was unable to maintain and on which subject the two sides were unable to compromise on that led to the Generals, having had enough of Suu Kyi’s prevarication, and simply taking over direct control of government. In real terms, things may not have changed much because, as many critics attest, the NLD was a democratic fig leaf for the Myanmar junta any way. This last contention, however, is not true. The Myanmarese military, under Western pressure, had transferred quite considerable power and authority to the NLD government, in the hope that its leader Suu Kyi would not rock the boat nor depart much from the line the Generals have always taken of prudently cultivating India and Russia as counterpoise to China. Despite many warnings she went off-script, signed numerous CMEC-related and other agreements with Beijing and compromised, in the junta’s view, the national interest.
India is the country the Myanmar Generals instinctively turn to when in doubt or in trouble. Indeed, the revolutionary founder of the Myanmar army General Aung San (yes, Suu Kyi’s father) was succeeded by U Nu and, fearful of China, the latter pleaded with Jawaharlal Nehru in the early 1950s for a security pact. This the Indian PM grandly dismissed as unnecessary and advised him to make peace with China! On other occasions since, for reasons of infirm will in Delhi and lack of clarity about where India’s national and strategic interests lay, Indian actions have confounded the Myanmariese Generals. Worse, the criminally tedious and tardy manner in which the Indian government has rolled out its promised infrastructure programmes — like the Kaladan project initiated more than 20 years ago, which is still not complete, is a case in point.
It contrasts with the record of Chinese construction companies executing complex infrastructure projects apparently in a jiffy, which hasn’t helped India’s cause. Indian strategic interests will be permitted to go down the drain but the Indian government — with MEA in the van — refuses to reform its overly bureaucratised way of doing things, providing other countries with a road map for how not to win freinds and influence neighbouring states. It merely firmed up the Myanmar military’s view that, while perhaps well meaning, India is just too thin a reed to lean on. And that Nyapyitaw (the new Myanmar capital) better rely on another more credible big power to secure its interests. This other power not surprisingly is Russia. Moscow understands that nothing so touches the hearts of the Mayanmar Generals as a bonafide military super power enthused with forging close links.
So in 2016, Russia and Myanmar signed an accord for long term military cooperation. The Putin government expects it to be the wedge in the door to establish itself as the prime supplier of military goods and services to Southeast Asian states. Those in the Indian government — and there are many in MEA and elsewhere who think this way, who believe that China has reversed the rank order and Russia is now its lapdog, have only to look at how assiduously it is building up its presence in the region to know that in the emerging geopolitics China has to contend as much with Russia as with the US. The reason why, I have long been arguing, that Prime Minister Modi’s ham-handed moves in the last few years to please Washington that have alienated Moscow, are the most imprudent thing he has done. Sure, it is a position from which his government is only now beginning to draw back, but damage has been done and requires urgent repairing.
The offshoot of Delhi’s bungling is that the bulk of Myanmar military officers, who used to come to Indian military institutions for training are these days going to Russia instead. General Hlaing has visited Russia more than he has done any other country and, in January this year, signed on for enlargement of security cooperation when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Naypyitaw. General Hlaing welcomed Shoigu in the most friendly terms, and confirmed Myanmar’s willingness to be the anchorage for Russian naval forces in the Indian Ocean — a very big developlment.
Delhi realizing it is on slippery slope, Foreign Secretary Shringla visited Myanmar in October 2020 and extended an invitation to Hlaing to again visit India, his first trip was in 2017. But with Russia and China both upping the ante, the Indian government will have to do a lots more than promising to take the General around to Darjeeling and loading him with packets of Seeyok tea he relishes. MEA-MOD will be well advised to offer him a slate of substantial hardware transfers. Why not lead with half a dozen of India’s very own and modern Tejas LCA — and a slew of advanced training schedules tailored to meet the Myanmarese military’s needs and otherwise build on the recent gift of an indigenously refurbished Russian Kilo SSK submarine along with crew training that has won India loads of goodwill?
Moreover, with CMEC seeking to connect Kunming to Kyaukpyu and Yangon, time for Delhi to propose to Hlaing jointly operated elint and radar stations on the Coco Islands offshore, and for the Modi government to take a whip to recalcitrant babus in various ministries who have stalled on petty financial grounds Indian development projects in the extended neighbourhood and, in this specific instance, are required to coordinate their activities with MEA, to deliver speedily on the Kaladan project before Naypyitaw loses all respect for India, and India loses its toehold in Myanmar.