As part of its effort to fully secure its borders and avoid being encircled, India made another move to plug its eastern and south-eastern fronts as threats loomed in the north and west.
China continues to occupy areas of Ladakh, and Pakistan has turned up the heat with unprovoked fire and shelling from the west.
The chief of the Indian Army, General Manoj Naravane, and Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla worked to resolve projects and commitments with Myanmar following two days of talks with State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the defense chief.
India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar will be in Tokyo for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) on October 6 to meet with his American, Japanese and Australian counterparts. They will discuss the pandemic and “regional issues” such as China’s role in the East China Sea, South China Sea and Ladakh.
Since its incursion into Ladakh and illegal occupation of Indian territories, China has turned its attention to India’s north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, which it threateningly refers to as southern Tibet. In response, India has beefed up its presence in the area. A part of its defensive move, it is seeking to plug infiltration avenues.
“The two sides discussed maintenance of security and stability in their border areas and reiterated their mutual commitment not to allow their respective territories to be used for activities inimical to each other,”’ New Delhi said in a statement on Monday.
India and Myanmar agreed to “broad-base their defense exchanges across all the three services,’’ as well as deepen bilateral relations in the energy sector, trade and other connectivity projects, the statement said.
By deepening relations with India and involving it in its development process, Myanmar is also reducing its dependence on China and wants India to act as a countervailing force.
Reports allege that terrorists are being trained in China’s Yunnan province, and that weapons, synthetic drugs and heroin are being smuggled across the Myanmar border.
In June 2015, Indian Army commandos destroyed a large terrorist base in Myanmar, killing more than 100 combatants. This was in retaliation for terrorists ambushing and killing 18 Indian soldiers.
China’s largely porous, 2,129-km border with Myanmar is easy to cross undetected.
Another critical agreement was a commitment to give India access to its Mizoram state through Myanmar’s Sittwe Port by the first quarter of 2021 as part of a project called Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project. Under the deal, Indian goods from the Sittwe seaport can be transported to Paletwa town by vessels on the Kaladan river and then by road to Mizoram.
The India-funded project is described lightheartedly in diplomatic circles as India’s alternative to the Chabahar project, alluding to a similar project that would have given India access to Afghanistan and Central Asia through the Iranian port next to Pakistan’s Gwadar port. Fearing US sanctions, contractors opted out of the project.
India and Myanmar share a 1,643-km long border, most of which is mountainous and covered with thick vegetation, making it very tough for armed forces to eliminate insurgents. Armed with Chinese-made weapons, the insurgents have thrived for decades.
Myanmar is also a critical element for the success of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), which comprises Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. The grouping cooperates in areas including trade, investment, transport, tourism, technology and public health.
India’s “Look East” and “Neighborhood First” policies have been an integral parts of Prime Minister Narendra Modi government’s foreign policy since 2014. Myanmar is key to India’s outreach to Southeast Asia with road connectivity to Thailand and onwards. Turbulence in Myanmar delayed some projects and the large Chinese presence didn’t help either.
India has similarly repaired the damage done to relations with Bangladesh by irresponsible comments made by senior government ministers intended to to appeal to domestic voters. India now has access to its mountainous northeastern states (also known as the Seven Sisters) from across Bangladesh by land and also through transshipment via the Chittagong port.
As a goodwill gesture, India is renovating 12 pagodas damaged during the 2016 earthquake in Myanmar’s Bagan area. Myanmar was part of pre-independence India for half a century until it was hived off in 1937. More than 2.5 million Indians are still part of that legacy.
“You can change your friends but not neighbors,’’ Atal Behari Vajpayee, India’s prime minister from 1999 to 2004, once said, appealing to Pakistan to opt for peace.