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Myanmar deepens India ties to reduce China dependency

YANGON -- Myanmar is forging closer relations with neighbor India in a radical departure from its recent foreign policy. The move comes as the impoverished Southeast Asian nation attempts to distance itself from its heavy dependence on China.

     In their recent meeting, the leaders of Myanmar and India discussed the construction of roads linking the two countries.

     Myanmar's diplomatic shift away from Beijing toward New Delhi could change the region's geopolitical balance. It comes at a time when many nations grapple with the challenge of dealing with an increasingly powerful and outwardly assertive China.

Logistic thinking

On Nov. 11, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew to Naypyitaw. It was the day before this year's summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations began in the Myanmar capital and Modi arrived in the country ahead of all other leaders. He arrived early to meet Myanmar President Thein Sein, at the request of Myanmar's government. During their 45-minute talks, the two leaders focused on measures to strengthen the transport connections between their countries, according to an Indian government official.

     Specifically, they talked about the development of a network of roads connecting Imphal, a city in northeastern India, with Mandalay, in central Myanmar.

     The two countries agreed in 1993 to build a cross-border road, but the plan failed to materialize as Myanmar, battered by Western economic sanctions, was unable to develop its side of the road network. Seeking to revive and implement the old plan, Myanmar has apparently asked India to help finance the road project. This move reflects a major shift in Myanmar's diplomatic strategy.

     Earlier this year, the country announced plans to triple the level of cross-border trade with India seen in fiscal 2012 by the end of fiscal 2015.

     It has also decided to restart exports to India of rice, its main agricultural product, for the first time in four years. Myanmar hopes that the proposed expansion of cross-border transport links will help ramp up its trade.

     Modi and Thein Sein also discussed the river port being built in Sittwe in western Myanmar. Indian companies are involved in the construction of the port, which is due to be completed next spring. The port will create a new distribution network connecting Myanmar with northeastern parts of India via the Kaladan River, which forms part of the border between the two countries.

     The new logistics network will contribute to economic development in India's seven northeastern states, the poorest region of the country.

Healing past differences

Another topic at the meeting between the two leaders was the promotion of Indian business investment in the development of Myanmar's energy resources.

     Modi's decision to skip the summit of the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, held in Beijing immediately before the ASEAN conference, for his meeting with Thein Sein reflects the Indian leader's diplomatic priorities, according to Indian diplomatic sources.

     Myanmar's current efforts to boost ties with India are all the more notable because the two nations have a troubled diplomatic history. Before World War II, Myanmar was part of the British Indian Empire, and Indians formed the ruling class in the region. Indian companies controlled key industries such as financial services in what is now Myanmar.

     After Myanmar gained independence in 1948, anti-Indian sentiment grew in the country, prompting many Indians to leave. The Southeast Asian nation is now striving to build closer bonds with India mainly because it has decided to reduce its dependency on China, which supported Myanmar while it was ruled by the military junta. During that period, Chinese companies developed dams and built natural gas pipelines in the country.

     After taking office in spring 2011, Thein Sein launched reforms to push the country toward democracy and recast the government's foreign policy to wean the country away from China.

     In 2012, Thein Sein froze a dam development by Chinese businesses. Earlier this year, he also scrapped a project for a railway linking Myanmar and China.

     Thein Sein's diplomatic readjustment was accelerated by China's assertive actions over territorial claims against some ASEAN nations in the South China Sea.

     Growing wariness about China's policy of expansion has pushed Myanmar toward India. Myanmar is now trying to become economically stronger to avoid relying on China's economic aid.

     In recent years, a rift has grown within ASEAN between Cambodia and Laos, which are major recipients of Chinese economic aid, and the Philippines and Vietnam, both embroiled in bitter territorial rows with Beijing.

     Myanmar's bolstering of ties with India could put additional pressure on China to act more peacefully in the region.

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