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Myanmar Crisis

India's silence toward Myanmar shows its wariness of China

New Delhi's delicate diplomacy dictated by strategic interests, analysts say

Aung San Suu Kyi and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. With China staring down at it, New Delhi has realized the need to take a pragmatic approach toward the military junta in Myanmar. (Source photos by Reuters)

NEW DELHI -- While Western nations condemn the military coup in Myanmar, India is taking a cautious approach as it bolsters its connectivity to Southeast Asia and attempts to curb China's influence.

Myanmar and India share a 1,600 km border, giving India a gateway to greater economic integration with Southeast Asia. As such, the country is crucial to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Act East policy.

The neighbors also share a 725 km boundary in the Bay of Bengal, where India aims to boost maritime security cooperation with Myanmar and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as part of a broader effort under the quadrilateral security dialogue. The U.S., Japan and Australia are also involved in what is better known as the Quad, which is designed to contain Chinese influence.

"India is looking at [the situation in Myanmar] from the perspective of its own geopolitical standpoint," said Udai Bhanu Singh, senior research associate and coordinator of the Southeast Asia and Oceania Center at the New Delhi-based Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

Singh pointed to a number of Indian infrastructure projects in Myanmar, particularly the Kaladan multimodal transit-transport facility between the two nations, and a highway that will stretch into Thailand. India has also proposed that the road, which is expected to boost trade, be extended into Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Some observers see the project as an effort to counter China's Belt and Road Initiative.

"These projects are at final points of completion," Singh said, adding India, which would like to see them completed as quickly as possible, needs the support of the Myanmar government, whoever is in power.

India responded to the Feb. 1 coup in a guarded fashion. The Ministry of External Affairs issued a 46-word statement that same day saying it had taken note of the developments with "deep concern" and voicing "support to the process of democratic transition."

During a Quad foreign ministers' meeting on Feb. 18, New Delhi issued a statement noting the importance of Myanmar upholding the rule of law and continuing with its transition to democracy.

"When it comes to dealing with military coups in Myanmar," Shamshad Ahmad Khan, visiting associate fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, told Nikkei, "India faces a 'value' versus 'interest' dilemma, which other countries in the region, including Japan, also face."

Khan pointed out that New Delhi stopped short of unequivocally condemning the military coup.

"If India hardens its position vis-a-vis [the] military regime, the junta will look to China to strengthen its legitimacy," he said.

Khan added that New Delhi would compromise its own interests by toughening its stance against the junta "which is likely to remain in power beyond their announced one-year schedule."

It is noteworthy that India puts its foreign policy and military ties with Myanmar at par. In October, Indian Army chief Gen. Manoj Mukund Naravane and Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla visited Myanmar, meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi as well as Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. The sides agreed to strengthen their partnership in connectivity projects, capacity-building and trade, and to broaden their defense exchanges.

New Delhi seems to have learned a lesson from its past and fears that isolating Myanmar's junta government could impact crucial anti-insurgency operations in India's northeast, along that 1,600 km border.

The lesson came in the 1990s. India, already a vocal critic of the Myanmar junta then, honored Suu Kyi with the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding. The prize was announced when both countries' armies were cooperating in Operation Golden Bird against separatist insurgents active in India's northeast.

"That really bothered the [Myanmar] military," Singh said, "and they withdrew cooperation on Operation Golden Bird ... which was meant to catch hold of [Indian] insurgents who were taking refuge in Myanmar."

India has another concern, China, and in this regard, analysts say it is important for New Delhi to keep engaging with Naypyidaw, as Beijing continues to chase its ambitions in the region.

New Delhi has realized the need to be a realist and engage with Myanmar, according to Pankaj Jha, a professor of defense and strategic studies at the O.P. Jindal Global University.

However, Jha added, given the fact that India is currently a nonpermanent member of the U.N. Security Council, it will continue to call for promoting democracy and upholding the rule of law in Myanmar. It has already taken this approach in statements that fall short of outright criticism of the junta.

There is one other reason for India to steer down the middle of the road, Suu Kyi. "India may also be analyzing whether Suu Kyi, who is under detention, remains a formidable leader [by taking back the reins of power in the near future] and someone who can really serve New Delhi's interest in the long run," Jha said.

The realist approach dictates that India develop ties with "promising future leaders," Jha added, "both democratic and military."

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