Written by Mihir Bhonsale.

During his first year in office, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelled to Myanmar to participate in the East Asia Summit in November 2014. He unveiled the “Act East Policy” in Naypyidaw that was said to be an upgradation of the Look East Policy launched in the 1990s. This policy was aimed at developing economic and strategic relations with countries in the Asia-Pacific.

Myanmar was at the helm of the “Look East Policy” when India turned to the South-East Asian nations. A limited engagement with the Junta government in Myanmar in the early 90s was undertaken by New Delhi to ensure stability in insurgency hit North-East India. This set the stage for India’s engagement with ASEAN.

Common non-traditional security threats such as terrorism, piracy and trafficking are bringing the two countries closer… However, despite the convergence of interests, relations between the two countries have yet to grow to their full potential.

Economic cooperation was added to the scope of the Look East Policy in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Then, New Delhi had begun negotiating a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with the ASEAN+3 countries. Connectivity with Myanmar and beyond was perceived to give India access to the markets of Southeast Asian nations and lead to investment for India’s land-locked North-eastern states.

Bilateral relations were rekindled due to the visits of President Htin Kyaw and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in 2016, the later visiting Goa for the BRICS-BIMSTEC Outreach Summit in October. The Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Naypyidaw from September 5 to 7, 2017 was the third visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Myanmar.

Economic Cooperation

During the visit of Myanmar President Htin Kway in August 2016, Prime Minister Modi took up the issue of setting-up an experts group for extending the India-Myanmar-Thailand (IMT) trilateral highway project to Vietnam. The IMT, part of the East-West Economic Corridor project, connecting India’s North-Eastern town of Moreh with Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar was seen to be a game-changer in India’s trade with Mekong countries.

The commencement of the Dawei deep-sea port and Special Economic Zone in Myanmar has opened a window of opportunity for India to get an alternate sea-access to Southeast Asia outside the already congested Malacca Strait. The Dawei port is part of the Mekong-India Economic Corridor that would connect Ho Chi Minh City with Phnom Penh and Bangkok to Dawei.

India announced a corpus fund of Rs. 500 crore for project development in the Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam (CLMV) bloc that languishes at the bottom of development indicators in ASEAN. Myanmar was promoted as an investment destination in the CLMV Business Conclave held in Chennai in January 2016. India’s efforts are directed at counterbalancing China’s influence; the latter has invested heavily in the CLMV countries.

Security partnership

The first meeting of the Joint Consultative Commission between India and Myanmar was held in June 2016. India agreed to help build the capacities of Myanmar’s army and navy.  By extending military training to Naypyidaw’s armed forces New Delhi hoped to stop insurgents in India’s Northeast from using Myanmar as a safe haven e.g. The NSCIN (Khaplang) faction had a ceasefire agreement with Myanmar’s military in a year when the Myanmar government was negotiating the National Ceasefire Accord with armed rebel groups.

New Delhi is keen to play a constructive role in the peace process in Myanmar.  This offer by India comes at a time when China has assumed greater influence over armed ethnic groups in Northern Myanmar with the formation of the Northern Alliance, a breakaway group led by the Wa.

China’s aggression in the South China Sea by asserting the Nine Dash Line has given an added strategic dimension to India’s engagement with the ASEAN bloc including Myanmar. India has pressed for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and has flexed its naval muscles by the Indian Navy initiating joint patrols with Bay of Bengal littorals including Myanmar.

Road Ahead

Bilateral visits have strengthened political relations between the two countries. Common non-traditional security threats such as terrorism, piracy and trafficking are bringing the two countries closer.  India is also Myanmar’s fourth largest trading partner.  However, despite the convergence of interests, relations between the two countries have yet to grow to their full potential.

Despite the priority accorded to “Act East” by the Modi government, the delay in connectivity projects in Myanmar disappoints India. The trilateral highway that was scheduled to be completed by 2016 is now expected to be ready by only 2019. In September Modi was informed that the construction of bridges on the Tamu-Kyigone-Kalewa Road and Kalewa-Yargyi sector of the Trilateral Highway will begin soon.

The National League for Democracy led government under Suu Kyi has already taken a conciliatory approach towards China. Suu Kyi has visited China twice and her government has shown signs of reconsidering stalled projects of China in Myanmar including the Myitsone Dam project. However, the Myanmar state’s reconciliatory approach is because of coercion by China, which may not hold in the long-run.

Mihir Bhonsale is a Junior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation’s Neighbourhood and Regional Studies Initiative. He is currently working on a research project titled, “Understanding Events on the India-China Border (2003-2015)”. Image Credit: CC by Modi – Myanmar/Flickr


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