India and Myanmar relations are rooted in shared historical, cultural, ethnic and religions ties. In addition to these commonalities, both these Asian countries share a long geographical land border and maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal. India and Myanmar were always marked as acquaintances but their rapport officially got underway after the Treaty of Friendship was signed between the President of India and the president of the Union of Burma in 1951.
Bilateral ties received another significant boost when the two countries signed a trade agreement in 1994. Since then many Indian companies has made significant economic and trade agreements in infrastructure and other areas. Indian companies such as Essar, GAIL and ONGC Videsh Ltd. have invested in Myanmar’s energy sector. Tata Motors has set up a heavy turbo-truck assembly plant with financial assistance from the Indian Government. Some of the major projects taken up by India include the resurfacing and up gradation of the 160 km Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road and the Kaladan Project that will connect Kolkata Port with Sittwe Port in Myanmar (which is still in progress). The two countries have also shared cultural exchanges through various cultural troupes. One such exchange was in 2009 when Myanmar sent a 13 member student group that attended a SAARC cultural festival in India. This was followed by another major event at which the Indian embassy in Yangon organized the annual Indian film festival, which is a major event on the Yangon cultural calendar. We can at best trace the cooperation between India and Myanmar, in its regional/sub-regional context. Both the nations are becoming increasingly important in strategic and economic terms. As per sources of Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, cooperation between India and Myanmar in the regional context can be stated as:
Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) – Myanmar became a member of ASEAN in July 1997. It is strategically important to India as it is the only ASEAN country that shares a border with India. It is also the only country that can act as a link between India and ASEAN. Myanmar is India’s gateway to Southeast Asia and thus it can be seen as a required impetus to realize India’s Look East Policy (LEP). For improving the connectivity and relationship between both Myanmar and Thailand, India has decided to upgrade the Kalewa-Yargyi road segment to highway standard, while Myanmar would develop the Yargyi-Monywa portion, and this would help to connect Moreh in India to Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar. If India and Myanmar are to become powerful regional players in Asia it is necessary to work towards developing policies that would improve and strengthen them domestically, which in turn will encourage more confidence in its ability to lead the region and be among the important global players.
Hence, in this context proposals for cooperation at different fields are being implemented and some are under discussions with Myanmar within the framework of ASEAN’s Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) programme.
Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) – It is an international organization involving a group of countries in South Asia and South East Asia. These are Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal. Myanmar became a member of BIMSTEC in December 1997. Myanmar is a signatory to the BIMSTEC Free Trade agreement. Myanmar is the lead country for the energy sector. Myanmar trades mostly with Thailand and India in the BIMSTEC. Myanmar’s major exports to India are agricultural products like beans, pulses, maize and forest products such as teak and hardwoods. Its import from India includes chemical products, pharmaceuticals, electrical appliances and transport equipment. BIMSTEC is visualized as a ‘bridging link’ between two major regional groups i.e. ASEAN and SAARC. BIMSTEC is an important element in India’s ‘Look East’ strategy and adds a new dimension to India’s economic cooperation with Myanmar.
Mekong Ganga Cooperation – Myanmar is a member of the Mekong Ganga cooperation (MGC) since its inception in November 2000. MGC is an initiative by six countries-India and five ASEAN countries namely, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam-for cooperation in the fields of tourism, education culture, transport and communication that would lay a solid foundation for future trade and investment cooperation in the region. The organization takes its name from the Ganga and Mekong, two large rivers in the region.
South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) – Myanmar requests to join SAARC needs to be gauged from the perspective of how both sides would benefit from each other in meeting future challenges and opportunities in the region. Myanmar shares a long land border with two SAARC countries-India and Bangladesh-and a long maritime border with them.
However, Myanmar was given the status of observer in SAARC in August 2008. Historically interactions were never absent between SAARC member countries and Myanmar. Commercial and cultural links between Myanmar and SAARC members particularly India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka had existed for centuries. The prime reason for Myanmar’s desire to join SAARC is the hope of receiving economic benefit, diplomatic supports and strategic leverages vis-à-vis sheltering itself from the assertive Chinese dominance.
Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation (BCIM) – It is sub-regional organization of Asian nations aiming at greater integration of trade and investment between the countries. At the behest of this initiative, three linkages are being constructed –ASEAN Free Trade Area, ASEAN-China Free Trade Area and the ASEAN-Indian Free Trade Area. This corridor that would effectively combine road, rail, water and air linkages in the region will bolster foreign trade of the BCIM countries and empower bilateral trading.
Myanmar shares common border with both India and China. Myanmar’s strategic location is considered as an important asset for India and china that offers tremendous opportunities for the countries in the region. Therefore, recent developments in Myanmar are a matter of concern for both India and china .Given the geo-strategic location of India and Myanmar, both of them have suffered from hegemonic acts of China at least in some point of time. Therefore, both India and Myanmar needs to be extremely cautious while getting engaged with China.
China’s ties with Myanmar are much stronger than India in terms of economy and political aspects. China’s strategic interest in Myanmar poses threat to India’s maritime and economic interest in Indian Ocean. To counter China from being the regional king, India needs to develop burly relations with Myanmar and also to ensure balance of power in the region.