Wednesday, October 19, 2011

UPA-II's Biggest Success?

Last week, President of Myanmar Thein Sein arrived in India on a state visit. But this was no ordinary visit: it came after his Government, barely a year old, instituted a number of reforms and cancelled a China-backed hydroelectric power project.

Could India's quiet diplomacy with Burma be working? For years, India has ducked Western attempts at isolating Burma, choosing to accept the military regime there and quietly encouraging it to embrace democratic reforms. This strategy can be summed up as - encourage, don't export, democracy. Indeed, India, China and ASEAN remained the only large countries or group of countries that had a close relationship with Burma.

All that seems to be changing now. Thein Sein, already described as 'Myanmar's Gorbachev' by some analysts, has instituted several key reforms, which were welcomed even by Aung Sun Suu Kyi. Even on a foreign policy front, Myanmar appears to be tiring of China's dominance in the country's economic affairs and is looking at India and ASEAN to keep it in check. But the true prize would be a withdrawal of Western sanctions on the country - indeed, Myanmar is looking at India to do just that. The MEA already reiterated its opposition to sanctions. Democratic India would have a much better chance of convincing the West than communist China.

But India too has much to gain from improving ties with Burma. After all, there is a large land border with as many as four Indian states, as well as proximity to the A&N Islands. The trade and energy potential is huge: India's land-locked Northeast would gain back another traditional market route lost after Burma was separated from British India. Burma's natural wealth is well-suited for India to use and the land border only adds to the value of it. From a security point of view, Burma has a central role to play in controlling insurgents in North East India, particularly parts of the NSCN and, perhaps, ULFA Commander-in-Chief Paresh Baruah, who might be hiding along the Sino-Myanmar border.

Myanmar represents India's route into the heart of South East Asia. It is the only ASEAN nation with which we enjoy a land boundary. Improving ties with the neighbour would definitely count as one of Manmohan Singh's few successes - despite his dogged domestic run. A falling Chinese influence in the region (already apparent in the warming India-Vietnam partnership) would be an ideal reply to China's 'String of Pearls' strategy.

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