Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Dec 20, 2018
China-Myanmar rail cooperation: Why India needs to be watchful

China and Myanmar are contemplating carrying out a feasibility study of a railway line between Muse on the Myanmar side of China-Myanmar border and Mandalay in Myanmar, according to recent media reports. The reports also suggest that China is also in the process of building a railway line connecting Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province of China, with Ruili, a town on the China-Myanmar border. Media reports are not clear if these two railway lines would be connected or would operate separately. Nevertheless, once operational, the two railway lines are expected to provide a major boost to economic activities between China and Myanmar and further cement the existing bilateral trade between the two countries.

During a visit to the border town of Ruili in China on the China-Myanmar border in 2017, this author got a first-hand exposure to the thriving border trade between Ruili and Muse. The step to conduct a feasibility study for railway network is in continuation with China’s long list of existing infrastructure projects in Myanmar.

In the last few years, China seems to be back in the game and has begun gradually gaining lost ground in Myanmar. Surprisingly, the nature of bilateral economic relations post forming of a civilian government in Myanmar have deepened and become more institutionalised. Myanmar has formally joined the Belt and Road Initiative and the two countries are working closely in realising the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor.

On the issue of China-Myanmar Railways, what seems like a harmless transportation network initiative between the two countries, could pose long-term and significant strategic ramifications for India. From the perspective of security, India’s border with Myanmar has historically presented serious security challenges. For instance, when one peruses through B. Raman’s book titled The Kaoboys of R&AW Down Memory Lane, it is mentioned that Chinese troops had used the Myanmar route to threaten India’s North-eastern States prior to the 1962 war. Raman further narrates that in the run-up to the India-China war of 1962, Chinese troops had commissioned local muleteers in Northern Myanmar to facilitate movement of troops and war logistics to challenge India’s Northeast.

In his book Insurgent Crossfire North-East India, author Subir Bhaumik states that insurgents from India’s North-eastern state of Nagaland arrived in China using the route passing through Myanmar in the 1960s. In fact, media reports are replete with information stating that Paresh Barua, the military chief of the  United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA – Independent), is believed to be residing in Ruili.

Given these facts, the proposed railway projects on either side of the China-Myanmar border is bound to raise eyebrows within the security establishment of India. Given the complex and evolving nature of geopolitics in India’s neighbourhood, it wouldn’t be entirely wrong to presume that in case of an escalation of tension between India and China, the latter could very well consider using the railway lines to transport its troops to the Indian border. Alternately, at the time of a minor conflict or a diplomatic spat, China could mobilise troops stationed in Yunnan province to showcase its strength and send feelers to India. Given these facts, it becomes imperative for India to closely monitor developments on this front.

At the diplomatic level, it is important for India to raise concerns and seek clarifications from both China and Myanmar about the intentions of the said projects. It would also be important for India to seek assurances from Myanmar regarding the security concerns that India may have pertaining to the project.

Given the current improvements in bilateral relations between India and China, it would perhaps be a good idea for China to voluntarily clarify its intentions behind the project and assuage any security concerns that India may have regarding the proposed railway project. Concerns about similar economic projects in India’s neighborhood in the past – especially the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passing through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and Hambantota port in Sri Lanka -- have led to several misunderstandings between the two countries and compounded the already complex security concerns.

Although the project is still in its initial stages, it would be important for India to prepare its response strategy. To begin with, it would be pertinent for India to enhance its own security preparedness to effectively counter a possible Chinese threat emanating from the Indo-Myanmar border.

Second, the work on infrastructure projects in India’s Northeastern States needs to be expedited to ensure speedy mobilisation of India’s own troops to face different contingencies. Third, monitoring of developments including deployment of space assets to ensure that India is not caught unaware would be desirable. Fourth, and most importantly, India on its part needs to substantially step up its own game in Myanmar and proactively engage Myanmar in the realm of infrastructure upgrade.

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