How does Myanmar balance between India and China?

Ahmed Noor Hosssain
Published : 19 Nov 2020, 10:34 AM
Updated : 19 Nov 2020, 10:34 AM

In making policy options, small countries always face hard questions whether they will be ground or gain leverage when two powerful states push one against the other. In theoretical analysis of international relation, a pressing question is how a small state balances relations with great powers. The realist tradition gives a promising answer to the question and stipulates that a small state maintains a balancing and hedging strategy in facing the powerful states and thus keeps up power balance. The "balancing act" sometimes turns into a bandwagon if the small state's policymakers consider the tenets of graphic proximity, offensive capabilities, and offensive intentions. Here the "hedging strategy" also works to deal with uncertainty or risks associated with the potentially threatening great power by pursuing a mix of policy options i.e. engagement, economic pragmatism and indirect balancing at the same time.

Myanmar's policy towards China in maintaining power balance has been based on "Pauk-Phaw" which entails some specific elements like historical legacy, internal security challenges, geopolitical reality, and regional security context. At the same time, Indian presence and realities of border security and socio-religious and cultural connections, including the geopolitical power matrix, make Myanmar bound to balance between Sino-Indian power plays in Burma. Rajiv Bhatia, a distinguished fellow of the Mumbai-based think-tank Gateway House and India's former ambassador to Myanmar, said Myanmar's impulse had always been to balance its two big neighbours India and China – a policy that current leader Aung San Suu Kyi also holds.

Myanmar's delicate balancing act, managing the two near but rival neighbours, is very much vivid now. From triangular economic cooperation to geo-strategic levels, Myanmar is managing both the competitive rivals in her soil and thus getting leverages from it. For example, a case in this point is the gas pipeline that runs from Rakhine State to the Chinese province of Yunnan, a joint investment involving South Korean, Chinese, Indian and Singaporean companies. India is engaging here on the logic that containing a competitor is imperative. Besides taking an antagonistic position, competitive cooperation makes the leverage that it will determine how the rival is taking stocks in its strategic playground.

While it is not considered part of the BRI, India runs next to an oil pipeline that is fully financed by China as part of the BRI. Finding the appropriate balance between cooperation and competition in its approach to China will help India achieve its "Act East" policy goals in Myanmar. On the other hand, China is engaging India on the ground that facilitating India in the low-profile interest area will give it leverage in high-interest areas. And Myanmar here is getting the suits from the competition of two dragons in a bush. It seems sometimes that Myanmar has to balance between China and India by giving China a port construction project while making an agreement with India on an oil refinery project.

Where Sino-Indian reasoning meets a halfway

If we look at a map, geographically Myanmar/Burma sits right between India and China but it's never been connected to India and China in a very close way because between India, Burma and China are many mountain ranges, there are jungles, places where it was very difficult to travel until very recently. And it's that basic geography that's now being overcome by infrastructure projects and communications speeded by regional and sub-regional linking projects, funded by China and India. It has been the geopolitical chessboard aligning the regional and global powers. So, what had been a basic fact of Myanmar, which was that India and China were separated by the Himalayas and by Burma, is now being transformed over these few years with the evolving geopolitical and security landscape, and that will have a major impact on all three countries.

Myanmar has sometimes been described as a "de facto Chinese client state" or "a virtual Chinese satellite," within the construct of China's strategic design to develop its western region. The last decade has also found a shift in Indian policy toward Myanmar—from its opposition to the military junta to a more pragmatic, non-interventionist policy. This shift is mainly due to four factors: the economic development of India's Northeast, India's increased interest in trade and investment with ASEAN, India's search for energy security, and China's increased influence on Myanmar.

Meeting each other's demands

Over the last 20 years, one thing was conspicuous that China wanted a market for its southwestern province, Hunan, which was very poor, and also wanted to get access to Burma's energy. It searched markets for goods manufactured in Hunan. They see Burma as the answer. As 80 percent of China's imported oil goes through the Straits of Malacca, they fear that the United States or India in the future could use that as a chokepoint and cut of China's import of oil. Again, Burma is the answer. So, a bridge across Burma or access across Burma was going to be part of two different grand strategies on the Chinese side. China's access to the Bay of Bengal via Myanmar, and the security of energy accessibility via its landlocked southern provinces, make Myanmar an important strategic partner for Beijing while at the same time Myanmar intends to gain from Chinese proactivity in Asia Pacific through BRI and "String of Pearls" strategy. The confluence of interest and synergy of intention has been merged here in Myanmar when we try to seek out the ways how Myanmar balances power relations with India and China.

In the case of India, the following statement by Nehru appears to be relevant today. "As in the past, so in the future, the people of India will stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Burma, and whether we have to share good fortune or ill fortune, we shall share it together."

There appears balancing behaviour between India and Myanmar, especially when China, as a competitor to India, is thriving with its economic and political capital in Myanmar.

India views Myanmar's emerging political transformation as a strategic and ideological opening that offers New Delhi an opportunity to dilute Chinese influence while Myanmar stands to gain from a stronger relationship with India in economic, political and strategic spheres.

The security issue complexity, including the strategic uplink and economic potentials, has bonded both the countries on the same quilt. The Naga community, situated on both sides of the border, and shaky border security are also a concern for the Myanmar government as the concept of "Nagaland" potentially threatens both states' territorial integrity. The economic vision laid upon the "Act East" policy will be realised here in Myanmar as well.

Given Myanmar's economic and political dependence on Beijing, it should be expected that the government in Naypyidaw will only do so much, and with caution. Even if Myanmar's relationship with China does not fundamentally shift (and we do not expect that it will), India—and other countries such as the United States and Japan—offer Naypyidaw greater leverage against Beijing by emphasising that Myanmar has other options to lessen over-dependency on China. Moreover, the intrinsic political support of India to Myanmar on the Rohingya issue has provided leverage to the Suu Kyi government. Apart from that, as a regional power, India can be a good option for military equipment and strategic partnership. Here lies the balancing logic of Myanmar. Nevertheless, there is an example of military supplies in recent times. In November 2020, India has given a Soviet-era Kilo-class submarine to Myanmar as part of taking their bilateral defence co-operation to new heights.

The geostrategic security and geopolitical and economic interests of India and Myanmar have been merged here in Rakhine. As India nurtures the vision of "Act East" policy and deeper engagement with Southeast and East Asian economies, it is using the Myanmar gateway giving special attention to counter Chinese intention in the region.

Future directions

The changing political and economic geography around Myanmar brought about by China and India poses the central question on Myanmar: "what will be its fate, as India and China nudge closer together?" While some speak of a new Silk Road of co-operation, others warn of a new Great Game and conflict. When America is "shutting the door" for Myanmar, it forced the Southeast Asian country into alliance-making with China and Beijing became "allies of convenience". In the same manner, Delhi gave political shelter to Myanmar, in sharp contrast to the worldwide scathing criticism it was facing on the Rohingya issue in return for economic projects and strong footholds in Rakhine. India sees Myanmar as a gateway to Southeast Asia and a theatre in which it vies with China for influence. As a country that sits at the intersection of India's "Neighbourhood First" and "Act East" policies, Myanmar clearly matters to the South Asian giant.

Regardless of whether Myanmar completes it democratic transition or retreats to resume its previous pariah status, its geostrategic significance and natural resources will continue to shape the balance of power in a region where Chinese and Indian interests intersect. China and India can indeed coexist in Myanmar, but not in benign form, when Myanmar itself is eagerly enthusiastic to get leverages through delicate balancing strategy from both the rivals.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher