Myanmar’s Prominence to India and China- Concerns of Bangladesh

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Parvedge Haider

The terrestrial location has raised the strategic importance of Myanmar despite its internal unrest, massive corruption and poor economic status. It is the only ASEAN country that shares a border with India and acts as a link between India and ASEAN. Myanmar is India’s access to Southeast Asia for its ‘Look East Policy’. In the recent past there are number of high level visits between these two countries.

Myanmar is also important to China for its geostrategic location in reference to its access to the Indian Ocean. China wants access to the Indian Ocean for its landlocked and remote Southwestern region, specially for the province of Yunnan. Moreover, China’s mega project Belt and Road Initiative(BRI) has been routed through Myanmar. Close to the key shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia, Myanmar is a big support for China to extend its military reach into a region of vital importance to Asian economies.

Photo-1: Myanmar Centric Economic Corridors

The Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal are fast becoming new flashpoints in the Sino-Indian strategic maritime competition. Being the conduit between the Western Indian Ocean and South China, the Bay of Bengal enjoys immense geostrategic influence in strategies of Asia’s rising powers. Myanmar is an important member of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). It is geopolitically significant to India as it stands at the center of the India-Southeast Asia geography. Myanmar is the only Southeast Asian country that shares a land border with northeastern India, stretching some 1,624 kilometers. It also shares a 725-km maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal. Being the only country that sits at the intersection of India’s “Neighborhood First” policy and its “Act East” policy, Myanmar is an essential element in India’s practice of regional diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific, and serves as a land bridge to connect South Asia and Southeast Asia.

Photo-2: Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea

Myanmar as a strategic partner serves major objectives in China’s Indian Ocean strategy. China’s intention to make inroads into the Bay of Bengal has become clearer with President Xi Jinping’s visit to Myanmar from January 17 to January 18, 2020[1]. It will not only boost infrastructure projects in Myanmar but also increase China’s influence in the region. Among the 33 agreements signed during the visit, the development of a deep-sea port in Kyaukphyu on the shores of the Bay of Bengal, a railway project to connect Chinese province of Yunnan to Myanmar’s coastal cities were more significant.

China’s dependence on oil has been increasing by 6.7 % each year and the demand is set to increase further, given the trade war with the US[2]. Therefore, the Bay of Bengal will be an alternative route for China. In the last two years, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy entered the Bay of Bengal on several occasions. The frequency of Chinese submarine patrols in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has almost tripled in the last two years.

Deep sea port at Kyaukpyu makes considerable economic and strategic sense for China in its drive to develop its inland provinces. Shipping goods from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and India to Kyaukpyu and then overland to Yunnan could save thousands of miles. It would be far more efficient than sailing all the way through the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea to ports along China’s southern and eastern coasts, and then traveling overland to China’s western provinces. Kyaukphyu will also help PLA Navy to entrench its naval presence in the IOR and military foothold in the Bay of Bengal.

Photo-3: Deep sea port at Kyaukpyu, Myanmar

Myanmar is not only a gateway to the Bay of Bengal but is also a strong member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Although the western nations isolate Myanmar on its human rights track record, China’s policy of non-intervention in Myanmar’s domestic politics has helped it to cultivate goodwill.

India is gradually developing the bilateral relationship with Myanmar. At the same time India is also trying to counter China’s Myanmar outreach. In doing so, India has given priority to secure the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean Region to intensify the maritime security dilemma. Very recently the Indian Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General MM Naravane along with Foreign Secretary (FS) Harsh Vardhan Shringla visited Myanmar[3].

Photo-4: Indian COAS and Foreign Secretary Visit in Myanmar

Agreeing on strengthening their partnership on varied fronts, both sides discussed the connectivity projects, capacity building, power and energy sector, deepening economic and trade ties, facilitating people to people and cultural exchanges, and broadening the base for defence exchanges across all the three services. India highlight the following issues to attract the interest of Myanmar:

  • The Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport (KMMTT) Project is a US$484 million project connecting the eastern Indian seaport of Kolkata with Sittwe seaport in Rakhine State, Myanmar by sea. In Myanmar, it will then link Sittwe seaport to Paletwa in Chin State via the Kaladan river boat route, and then from Paletwa by road to Mizoram state in Northeast India. Although this project has faced delays as the route of the project traverses a warzone in Rakhine state, where a battle rages on between the Myanmar Army and the Arakan Army rebels and insurgents from India’s Nagaland have also disrupted the completion of the project, Indian Government is trying to complete this mega project by 2021.
Photo-5: Kolkata- Sittwe- Paletwa and Aizawl Route
  • During Corona pandemic India has provided the most desired medicine ‘Remdesivir’ to Myanmar[4].
  • India has promised Myanmar to provide Corona virus vaccine as soon as those are available[5].
  • A $2 million project for the construction of the border Haat Bridge at Byanyu/Sarsichauk to develop the economic connectivity between Mizoram and Myanmar[6].
  • India will be handing over 200 houses to Myanmar, those are built under the Rakhine State Development Programme (RSDP) for $ 25M for a period of five years[7].
  • India has promised $25 million to develop the impoverished region[8].

Myanmar is gradually getting vital for India to fulfilling its ambition to become a $5 trillion economy by 2024. But with a total bilateral trade of $2 billion, India’s economic engagement with Myanmar lags behind China. Infrastructure projects are underway, such as the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport (KMMTT), which aims to connect the eastern Indian seaport of Kolkata with the Sittwe deep-water port in Myanmar’s Rakhine state by sea. It is incumbent on India to bring the projects they front and finance into fruition expeditiously.

The Indian and Myanmar armies have carried out two joint military operations, codenamed Operation Sunshine[9], to fight militants along the borders of Myanmar’s Rakhine state. India also provided military training and conducted joint military exercises with the Myanmar Army like the India-Myanmar Bilateral Military Exercise (IMBAX-2017 and IMBEX 2018-19), by which India had trained the Myanmar Army to be able to participate in UN Peacekeeping Operations. Realizing the growing importance of the Bay of Bengal, the navies of both India and Myanmar conducted a historic bilateral naval exercise, IMNEX-18, in 2018[10]. India also invited the Myanmar Army to participate in the India-led multilateral Milan naval exercise that occurs biennially in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, with the next one taking place in March 2020.

India has identified Myanmar as key to increasing its military exports. Along those lines, Myanmar purchased India’s first locally-produced anti-submarine torpedo, called TAL Shyena[11], in 2017, and in 2019, Myanmar acquired a diesel-electric Kilo-class submarine, INS Sindhuvir, which India had modernized after purchasing from Russia in the 1980s.

The Concerns of Bangladesh

Rohingya influx is a major concern for Bangladesh. Unfortunately, both the friendly countries, China and India have directly or indirectly took the side of Myanmar on this issue. Myanmar’s geostrategic importance to India influenced not to take any hardline approach on the Rohingya issue, even keeping its distance when Myanmar was hauled into the International Court of Justice over accusations of Rohingya genocide. Indian government is now led by the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Possibly, they are not going to be sympathetic to the plight of Muslim Rohingyas with their Islamophobia tendencies. On the other hand, China is also unable to take any assertive move against Myanmar considering its own economic interest and significant number of mega projects.

Bangladesh is suffering by the Rohingya centric security challenges. The exodus of 1.1 million persecuted Rohingyas from Myanmar to Bangladesh has marked the completion of the third year without any substantial progress in repatriation of these unfortunate people to their homeland. It is exasperated by the lack of progress in repatriating any of the estimated one million Rohingya refugees. On August 25,2020 the US State Department in a statement urged the authorities of Myanmar to establish conditions conducive to the safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return of the persecuted and displaced Rohingyas. The statement said the US has taken strong actions including financial sanctions and visa restrictions on top military leaders.

China can play a leading role in resolving the Rohingya crisis and can lessen the burden on Bangladesh as Beijing has got great influence and strong ties with Myanmar. At the same time, China is also a great development partner of Bangladesh. Chinese top leadership in response to Bangladesh’s requests had assured time and again to play a role in finding a sustainable solution to the crisis. China’s position was clarified by President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang during Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s state visit to Beijing in 2019. President Xi Jinping said there should be a quick solution to the Rohingya crisis so that the displaced people can go back to their homeland.

Nobel laureate Suu Kyi, the Myanmar Government’s de facto head, since the national elections of 2015 has expressed very little publically regarding the Rohingya’s ongoing exodus to Bangladesh and has refused to condemn the military activities taking place in the region. According to sources even in the telephonic conversation with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan she put the blame on “terrorists” in the Rakhine State and summarized the whole scenario in terms of “iceberg of misinformation”. In this scenario, China is likely to have indirect influence in the election of Myanmar. The present development designates that Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s win in the election will benefit China in all aspects[12]. So, will there be any hope for Bangladesh in solving this crisis near future?



[1] China’s Xi ends Myanmar visit with flurry of agreements, .
[2] Implications of China’s Dark Shadow in Myanmar, .
[3] Indian COAS and Foreign Secretary’s visit to Myanmar, .
[4] India contributes 3,000 vials of Remdesivir to Myanmar, .
[5]Covid-19 vaccine ‘diplomacy’: India to expand cooperation with neighbouring countries for Coronavirus vaccine development, .
[6] Army chief, foreign secretary meet Suu Kyi in Myanmar, discuss bilateral ties, .
[7] India to handover 200 houses in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, .  
[8] Implications of China’s Dark Shadow in Myanmar, .
[9] Indian army conducts ‘Operation Sunshine-2’ with Myanmar army, camps of northeast militants targeted, .
[10] India and Myanmar Bilateral Army Exercise begins in Meghalaya, .
[11] Mustafa Izzuddin and Archana Atmakuri, India’s Myanmar Engagement under the Modi Government, .
[12] A vote for Suu Kyi is a vote for China in Myanmar, .
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