Originally Published 2012-06-04 00:00:00 Published on Jun 04, 2012
That India and China are rivals in Myanmar is a widely accepted premise. Much of the Indian and international reporting on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's just-concluded visit to Myanmar reflected this understanding.
One-sided rivalry?
That India and China are rivals in Myanmar is a widely accepted premise. Much of the Indian and international reporting on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s just-concluded visit to Myanmar reflected this understanding.

On its part, official Beijing suggested that is not bothered by the idea of a competition with India in Myanmar. A spokesman of China’s ministry of foreign affairs welcomed Singh’s visit to Myanmar. "China is happy to see the development of friendly relations between India and Myanmar", Liu Weimin said on Monday.

Liu also dismissed the suggestion that Singh might have stolen a march over Chinese premier Wen Jiabao in making it to Naypyitaw. Wen’s planned visit to Myanmar last year was postponed at the last minute. Liu reaffirmed China’s policy of maintaining high level exchanges with Myanmar but did not say when Wen might travel to Naypyitaw.

For nearly two decades China and India, with whom Myanmar shares long borders and historical ties, have been the major partners for the nation that faced Western hostility and international sanctions.

Given the intensity of that engagement in recent years, the notion of a Sino-Indian rivalry in Myanmar gained much international currency. While Beijing’s official response to PM’s visit was nonchalant, the Global Times sharply criticised the Indian and Western tendency to project a rivalry between Delhi and Beijing.

Nationalists in China see Beijing way ahead of India on all indicators of power and are irritated by the proposition that they are in rivalry with India either in Myanmar or anywhere else in the world. "Some Indian media are obsessed with portraying a scenario of China and India in competition. It is probably driven by a sentiment of wanting to be seen as being equally important as China", the editorial argued.

The editorial reflects the traditional sense that the "Sino-Indian rivalry" is one-sided and exists only in the minds of the Indian and international media. It lamented that "China is the target of almost every subject" of debate in India. "This is confusing and unpleasant to us. India does not have to build its pride this way", the Times declared.

Business ties

It is a pity that the Times did not note the External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna’s statement in Naypyitaw this week that India was not in competition with China in Myanmar. Rejecting the notion of rivalry, Krishna argued that India and China have separate engagements with Myanmar and "each relationship stands on a pedestal created over a period of time," Krishna added.

Delhi is acutely aware of the fact that Myanmar’s economic relationship with China is far deeper than that with India. Despite a recent downturn in the ties between Naypyitaw and Beijing, Delhi knows China will remain the leading external partner for Myanmar. Delhi’s foreign policymakers emphasise the importance of playing to India’s strengths in Myanmar rather than chasing China’s tail.

Meanwhile, Indian businesses are participating in major Chinese projects in Myanmar. Punj Lloyd is a major subcontractor in the project to build an oil pipeline from the Bay of Bengal to south-western China. India’s public sectors units, OVL and GAIL, hold minority stakes in Myanmar’s offshore hydrocarbon development projects that will supply energy to China.

As Naypyitaw seeks more foreign investment, it is possible to imagine substantive cooperation between Chinese and Indian companies in the development of transport networks and other infrastructure projects in Myanmar.

Suu Kyi travels

For all the importance of China and India to Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi has chosen Thailand, Myanmar’s special neighbour to the east, for her first foreign visit since she returned home 24 years ago.

Suu Kyi is spending a few days in Thailand, where she arrived Tuesday night. She will meet the large number of migrant workers and refugees in Thailand and address the World Economic Forum on East Asia.

After returning to Myanmar, Suu Kyi heads to Europe. Her destinations include Geneva, Oslo, Dublin, London and Paris. In Oslo she will formally accept the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to her two decades ago. In London, she will address a joint sitting of the British Parliament.

Suu Kyi’s international itinerary is a reminder that new Myanmar is looking beyond China and India and will reclaim its rightful place in the world and reassert its independent global voice.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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