Confirmation by diplomatic sources that a power packed Indian delegation, comprising foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla and chief of army staff (COAS) MM Naravane, will visit Myanmar for high-level discussions on Monday, is imbued with significance. Almost every Indian foreign secretary visits Myanmar at least once in his/ her tenure. So does the COAS. But it is the first occasion when the two dignitaries form a composite delegation, tasked to engage the leadership on advancing this vital relationship at a critical time.
The delegation’s composition reflects New Delhi’s nuanced understanding of where power lies in Myanmar. This is only the second time that the foreign secretary visits a neighbouring country in the Covid era (He visited Bangladesh earlier).
The visit, which is bound to attract extensive diplomatic attention, was preceded by Foreign Office consultations, held on Thursday on a virtual platform. It will be followed by a ministerial meeting of the Joint Trade Committee on 20 October. Taken together, these developments should impart a strong momentum to bilateral relations. It is “a time-tested partnership”, stressed U Soe Han, Myanmar’s permanent secretary for foreign affairs, reflecting a shared assessment.
The present context enhances the visit’s significance. On 8 November, Myanmar will go through its parliamentary elections. Indications are that the National League for Democracy government, led by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, could return to power, probably with a reduced majority. If so, it would continue to govern, sharing power with the Myanmar army in accordance with the Constitution.
Holding elections is a challenge in these Covid times, with Myanmar having recorded the fourth highest caseload within Asean. The Rohingya question continues to fester, straining Myanmar’s relations with Bangladesh. Finally, China’s expanding economic footprint in Myanmar and the continuing impasse on India-China border complete the relevant backdrop.
It is a given that all the five key pillars of India-Myanmar relationship will be discussed in depth. First, cooperation on political and diplomatic levels exists in ample measure. Since 2014, seven visits at the head of state/ government level took place, resulting in numerous agreements and deepening of mutual understanding.
Second, security and defence cooperation registered progress. Signifying a major breakthrough, 22 Indian insurgents were handed over by Myanmar authorities in May. Through the triad of dialogue on strategic issues, expansion of training facilities and supply of defence equipment needed by the Myanmar military, India has consistently strengthened defence ties. General Naravane is likely to interact with Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing to review progress and plan the next steps.
Third, development cooperation valued at $1.4 billion (through grants) is substantive. Capacity building has been accorded priority, with several new institutions set up for agricultural education, information technology and industrial training that have benefited Myanmar youth immensely. Over 100 projects have been completed as part of the border development programme in western Myanmar.
Fourth, economic cooperation has developed, but it still stays at a sub-optimal level. Bilateral trade stood at $1.7 billion in 2018-19. Efforts are underway to draw in India Inc. In 2019 alone, nearly 150 Indian companies participated in trade exhibitions held in Myanmar. India’s total investment amounting to $800 million needs to be increased. Investment in energy cooperation, valued at $1.2 billion, deserves a further push. Two of the major connectivity projects, however, have been a matter of concern and will now receive high-level attention.
Finally, people-to-people exchanges occupy a special place, considering the invaluable connect of Buddhism and the presence of a nearly two million strong Indian community in Myanmar. India’s assistance in restoration of the Ananda Temple in Bagan and two temples in Bodh Gaya built by Burmese rulers – King Bagyidaw and King Mindon – has been widely appreciated in Myanmar. So is India’s timely help of medicines and equipment to fight the corona pandemic.
As the Shringla-Naravane team discusses key facets of a strategic partnership in Naypyitaw, think tanks in both countries need to contribute more, with fresh ideas and thinking. While the region’s geopolitics changes, India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘Act East’ policy and Myanmar’s deep-seated instinct for a balanced and independent foreign policy must ensure that the two countries journey together as ‘companion souls’.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme, Gateway House.
This article was originally published in Times of India.