Originally Published 2014-01-10 04:50:00 Published on Jan 10, 2014
As leading Asian democracies, India and Japan are perfectly poised to stake their claim in the sphere of geopolitical influence by increasing regional cooperation with countries like Myanmar
India-Japan-Myanmar: Prospects for strategic connectivity
" India's Look East policy aims at building a system of regional cooperation that symbolises a counter-narrative of democratic powers exerting their global influence, as opposed to the Communist Party-ruled influence of China.

To this end, India's positive engagement with its eastern neighbourhood is essential.

India and Myanmar share a 1,600 km border, the boundary also representing an ethnic kinship among many communities that live on either side of it. As a country that has recently revamped its politics on democratic lines, Myanmar is a key ally for New Delhi in the immediate periphery.

India's Northeast is the region that borders Myanmar, and while it has so far reeled under a lack of development and under administrative negligence, it holds great potential for the development of a contiguous connectivity network that will help both countries come closer. India's Northeast and Myanmar together hold the potential of being India's gateway to Southeast Asia, and the region needs to be made a priority if key foreign policy goals are to be achieved.

The growing power of China in the nations bordering the Northeast, especially in the development of infrastructure and in enhancing connectivity, offers a challenge to India. New Delhi now faces the challenge of reaching out to neighbouring countries and implementing economic projects there in addition to building connectivity capacities in the Northeast itself.

China and Myanmar are working at improving infrastructure in the Mekong Basin, with the former building dams on the river in its mineral-rich province of Yunnan to generate hydroelectricity, as well as developing a waterway connecting it to Myanmar.

The importance of Myanmar in order to develop a counterweight to Chinese influence is not lost on other leading Asian nations. Japan, for example, realises that a strong bilateral relationship with Myanmar is vital to its own influence in the region. Japan and India have the advantage of a very strong bilateral relationship, Tokyo's regard being made evident by the recent visit of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, the first heads of the 2,600 year old monarchy to come to India.

As leading Asian democracies, India and Japan are perfectly poised to stake their claim in the sphere of geopolitical influence by increasing regional cooperation with countries like Myanmar. Both countries have sought to work with Myanmar for its development, and there is great merit in the idea that they work together to give their efforts a much-needed force multiplier. Strategic coordination will also achieve, as a result, the development of Northeast India as well as Southeast Asia and bring to diverse communities of people, the benefits of a better developed and connected world.

Further, the recently concluded general election in another of India's eastern neighbours, Bangladesh, with the opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh National Party casting doubt over the mandate that handed victory to incumbent Sheikh Hasina's Awami League, can be a factor of instability and pose a challenge to India's quest for enhancing connectivity in the region. After all, it is no secret that the BNP has a hardline, right-wing political stance that could facilitate a nexus with Pakistan and China and work together in ways detrimental to India's regional interests. It becomes all the more important, therefore, for India to take major steps to enhance its relations with Myanmar to ensure a robust bulwark against the ramifications to its Look East policy from such a nexus. One such step is to develop undeclared coordination in the region with similar-minded nations like Japan.

At present, what India and Myanmar have on their hands is a number of resources and projects with great potential, but which are held back for lack of decisive action, while China continues to be a step ahead of the rest. The Stilwell Road, built during World War II, is a valuable logistical resource in the region. Over 1,700 kilometres long, it runs between India, Myanmar and China's Yunnan province. The Indian side of the road is also the least developed. The Imphal-Mandalay bus service, proposed during Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh's visit to Myanmar in 2012, too remains to be inaugurated.

The development of the Kaladan Multimodal Transport Project, which links Kolkata to Sittwe in Myanmar by sea and then Sittwe to Mizoram by road and rail, will be a significant advance. Both nations also need to iron out the problems obstructing the development of two hydroelectric power projects. With a combined capacity of 2080 MW, these would benefit not only the Northeast, but also the other energy-starved parts of India.

The lack of a direct flight between New Delhi and Myanmar is another telling drawback in the bilateral equation. Though it is to the credit of both nations that a chartered flight by private carrier Golden Myanmar between Imphal and Mandalay was inaugurated in November last year, ahead of Manipur's Sangai Festival.

This new air route is part of a bilateral air services agreement signed during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Myanmar in 2012. It is a significant overdue step in enhancing connectivity between the northeast and Myanmar, one that can and should be extended to other strategically, albeit not entirely economically viable links in the region.

There are other positive steps that have been taken as well, such as the extension by India of a $500 million credit line to Myanmar.

Japan, India's largest source of aid and a provider of assistance in the development of its infrastructure, is targeting the development of connectivity infrastructure in countries like Myanmar as well, in order to give a boost to regional communications and trade.

Japan has also released Myanmar from a $4.9 billion debt in addition to promising more aid, as well as seeking a leading role in the country's economic and infrastructural development. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also became the first Japanese head of government to meet Aung Saan Suu Kyi last year, a clear indication of Tokyo's support to democratic forces in Myanmar.

A consortium of Japanese firms -- Mitsubishi Corporation, Marubeni Corporation and Sumitomo Corporation -- pledged 49% of the capital required to develop the Thilawa Special Economic Zone, 51% of the investment on which will be indigenous, in an entity called Myanmar Japan Thilawa Development Ltd. (MJTD).

The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is also working extensively in Myanmar for the development of better systems of water supply, better rural development and the eradication of opium poppy cultivation etc.

The Government of Japan has also decided to provide assistance for the development of railways, water supply and irrigation. Prime Minister Abe has voiced Japan's intention of providing assistance for human resources development in the fields of postal service and industries, as well as the development of human resources in health and medicine. Myanmar's President, U Thein Sein, has said that versatile support from Japan, including the fields of finance and technology would help enhance reform and progress in Myanmar.

Japan also stepped in with humanitarian assistance in August last year, when continuous heavy rains caused flooding in Myanmar, providing 13 million yen worth of emergency relief goods.

The current sphere of Japanese involvement in Myanmar is literally all encompassing, aimed at seeking the development of a better administration, better infrastructure, a better-skilled human resource base as well as cooperation in the fields of security, commerce and trade.

Like Japan, India also needs to concretise its plans of action in Myanmar, and implement its plans without much ado. Apart from the development of transport and connectivity infrastructure, trade is also a vital element in the bilateral equation, one that would benefit both the Northeast and Myanmar.

Key points on the 1,600 km long India-Myanmar border could be developed as trading posts, akin to the Nathu La Pass in Sikkim.

Capacity and technology augmentation of local industries, those in which the Northeast has a comparative advantage, must be a prerequisite to the opening of trade.

India's Exim Bank opened a representative office in Yangon in September last year, and New Delhi must now use the access this provides to seek better avenues of cooperation not only with the Myanmar government, but also with Japanese agencies like JICA in the projects undertaken by them.

Tokyo, meanwhile, continues to show increased interest in bettering bilateral ties with India. Japanese PM Shinzo Abe is scheduled to visit India later this month as Chief Guest at the Republic Day Celebrations on January 26.

An expression of interest of India and Japan working to develop, in partnership, the Northeast as well as Myanmar, would be an ideal talking point for Premier Abe's visit.

(Krishan Varma is a Distinguished Fellow with Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata Chapter)

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.