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Rediff.com  » News » China has lost the 'Jade kingdom', India must not

China has lost the 'Jade kingdom', India must not

May 27, 2012 16:10 IST

As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh walks the red carpet at the Ela Airport in Myanmar on May 28, he would be seen by many there as arriving a little too late.  Is New Delhi really prepared to take China's lost ground? Atishay Abbhi examines the issue.

This is the fourth part of a series on India-Myanmar relations, to mark Dr Singh's visit, which begins on Sunday.

Part 1: Why India is wary of Myanmar-NSCN-K agreement

Part 2: How important is Dr Singh's visit to Myanmar?

Yangon's Sule Pagoda is once again flooded with protestors like it was in 2007 or 1988, but the batons are in check.

Free political prisoners, relaxed freedom of speech, relatively free and fair elections and freed up markets for investment, words like 'opening up', 'free', 'reforms' now describe the hitherto 'rogue' state.

From house arrest to Parliament, from a junta general to a reformist, Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein today lead the reform journey called Myanmar.

Even as citizens 'test the limits' of Thein Sein's reforms through protests against power cuts, Myanmar's transition is not slipping in darkness.

But the story of Myanmar's transition is not all about Myanmar. The change of heart was about a cozy relationship going claustrophobic and Myanmar needed air to breathe.

Even a $4.2 billion interest-free loan from China for road, rail and electricity projects could not stop President Thein Sein from packing up China's Myitsone dam project on the Irrawaddy river in Kachin state.

It was a highly controversial dam, opposed by all -- Burmese, Kachins, government, opposition, rebels, and activists -- for historical, environmental and displacement reasons. Even some Chinese felt it was a 'stupid idea'.

More than the economic loss, Beijing's problem was Myanmar's new found resistance and ability to say NO to China. Who was backing Naw Pyi Taw if we weren't, asked the Chinese.

The project's suspension caused a huge uproar in Beijing and questions were being asked about the effectiveness of the regime in consolidating its economic and strategic gains in the region.

A junta President had chosen bridging factional disputes in the government (over the dam), respecting public opinion (for the first time) and calming ethnic interests over pleasing its hitherto trustee.

China was on the back-foot and now even worrying about the other project -- a pipeline from Myanmar's west coast, Kyaukryu port in Arakan state to Kunming in China. Any further change in Burmese attitude for worse would have blocked its key import alternative for energy from West Asia and Africa. 

More than the dams and the pipelines, the anti-China sentiment among Myanmar people and even within the government was enough to strip China off its ranks.

The two pauk-phaw (cousins) are not behaving like 'good relatives', a Chinese in Mandalay tells Thant Myint-U, author of Where China meets India. He feels that something will happen and the Burmese will turn against us. A Burmese later told the author what that 'something' could be:

"The Chinese have moved in and the Burmese have had to move out. They have bought land, tore down buildings and have built their own compound. The problem is not them, the problem is we don't have a level playing field."

While responding to the collective anti-China sentiment won him domestic applause, the strategic victory came in January this year with the release of political prisoners, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and elections in place, which put Thein Sein firmly in the driver's seat.

For over four decades, the Myanmar junta and its generals have carried the weight of Chinese indulgence without forgetting that many a men were lost in battles against Chinese backed insurgents. Backed by public discontent, threats of internal factionalism, prospect of chairing ASEAN and lifting of sanctions for reforms made the choice easy for Myanmar's rulers.

Today Myanmar's leaders are flying to capitals, making the right noises. Delinking its military ties with North Korea, promising further reforms and warning the conservatives within the government to not fall behind the reform process. Rewards are coming its way thick and fast. After 22 pariah years, Myanmar now has its new US Ambassador in former US Special Envoy Derek Mitchell.

Japan, South Korea, India, Thailand -- all are queuing up to help Myanmar build its roads, bridges, pipelines and whatever it wants. China was standing still while the world was rushing past it, even trampling on it. How high Chinese eyebrows rose was reflected in a Global Times editorial, warning that China would not allow its interests in Myanmar to be "stamped on".

Eventually, China had to step aside.

The ground wasn't theirs anymore to play. Myanmar's rise will be remembered as the fall of China's first card in the domino.

For decades, Myanmar people have seen India as the only credible alternative to China. But is New Delhi prepared to take China's lost ground?

As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh walks the red carpet at the Ela Airport in Nay Pyi Taw on May 28, he would be seen by many there as arriving a little too late.

India had the chance to harbour a special relationship with Myanmar when the generals came to India in the early 1990s urging New Delhi to balance Beijing and relieve them of the Chinese encumbrance.

India was not up to the job and now there are many to do that for Myanmar.

New Delhi was reminded of its mistake time and again by Yangon. South block will find it hard to erase the memory of Myanmar snubbing India in 2006 over the supply of gas in the A-1 block, awarding the contract to Petrochina instead of the Myanmar-India-Bangladesh pipeline.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will also have to cover another tactical gaffe that has embarrassed New Delhi for some time. Its handling of Aung San Syu Kyi. After WikiLeaks revealed India's "her day has come and gone" attitude, PM's decision to invite Daw Aung San Syu Kyi to visit India is a step in the right direction.

Also, Syu Kyi now wears the hat of an opposition leader in the Burmese parliament and keeping her on board will ensure sustainability of the relationship, even after the SPDC government.

Meanwhile, India's 1,600 km long border with Myanmar requires attention, for both security and development. Prosperity in Myanmar is bound to spill over into the northeast and its economic prospects, especially with better Kolkata-Chittagong-Yangon cooperation will be in for a facelift.

A multimodal transport corridor into the northeast through Myanmar, shipping goods from Kolkata to Sittwe into Mizoram will definitely have a significant impact.

India has offered Myanmar training seats in the National Defence Academy and Myanmar wants its soldiers trained in counter-insurgency at the Jungle Warfare Training school in Mizoram.

Joint operations in the northeast shall once again resume after the success of 'Operation Golden bird'.

On the energy front, India currently has stakes in 5 Blocks in Myanmar (Block A-1, A-3, AD-2. AD-3, AD-9) and the earliest commercial production will begin in May 2013 (A-1).

India's Sittwe project -- an energy terminal to carry offshore natural gas into West Bengal through Bangladesh is already underway. If Bangladesh becomes a problem, an alternate route of circumventing Dhaka is also on the cards.

Myanmar's opening up also presents a significant opportunity for India to cement its Look East Policy. India can involve itself with Japan, South Korea and Thailand who are now working on economic, infrastructure and energy projects in the country.

India has already expressed keen interest in associating itself with the $50bn Thai infrastructure project in Dawei in Southeastern Myanmar. Myanmar would truly become India's gateway to the East.

Both India and China need Myanmar for its energy, market etc. however the crucial difference between the two will be their attitude. India's focus has to be towards developing Myanmar's political institutions, meeting infrastructure requirements, border-security cooperation, training of personnel and increased people to people contact either through trade, student exchange programme, easing of visas etc. than treat Myanmar as a 'client' or 'buffer' state.

Beijing and New Delhi will continue to compete for space in Myanmar. Bad PR and political miscalculations turned India's cooperation in Nepal into 'interference', bringing Beijing closer to Kathmandu and its people. New Delhi must ensure Myanmar does not become another Nepal. 

Atishay Abbhi specialises in China's security and foreign policy.
Atishay Abbhi