India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) shaking hands with Myanmar's Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi during the India-ASEAN commemorative summit in New Delhi. Photo: Handout via AFP
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes hands with Aung San Suu Kyi during the India-ASEAN commemorative summit in New Delhi in 2018. Photo: Handout via AFP

On June 1, 2018, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address to the Shangri-La Dialogue formally announced his country’s Indo-Pacific policy. He also said that India advocated an independent, free, and inclusive Indo-Pacific system in the region. 

At the same time, major steps were taken to strengthen relations with the US, Japan and Australia through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. It is important to note here that India had been avoiding connecting the Quad directly to the Indo-Pacific.

The Indian government also tried to end the skepticism of the Southeast Asian countries by calling for the Indo-Pacific policy to keep New Delhi’s “Act East” policy and ASEAN countries at the center.

However, Indian policymakers soon realized that if the Indo-Pacific regional system was to materialize, then faster and bigger steps would have to be taken. In November 2019, during the 14th East Asia Summit in Bangkok, Modi announced the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative. 

Recently, this was once again glimpsed when External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar visited Sri Lanka from January 5-7, where he insisted on promoting cooperation between India and its neighbors under the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative. There is no doubt that despite the difficulties and ups and downs, India’s cooperation with every country in South Asia, except Pakistan, has increased.

In spite of all this, in recent years skepticism has emerged in India about the Neighborhood First policy. The biggest reason for this is the increasing dominance of China in South Asia.

Gateway to ASEAN

Among the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Myanmar is the only country with which India has a land and sea border totaling more than 1,600 kilometers. The two countries now regularly hold joint military exercises, shared maritime patrol programs and consultations at the military level.

The Indian Navy also trains Myanmar naval personnel. The ground forces of both the countries have also taken action against extremist groups along the border.

The Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative has seven pillars:

  1. Disaster risk reduction and disaster management
  2. Capacity-building and sharing of resources
  3. Maritime security
  4. Marine ecology
  5. Marine resources
  6. Science, technology, and educational collaboration
  7. Trade connectivity

Myanmar connects India with Southeast Asia, especially its northeastern regions, and in this sense it is also very important from the point of view of economic and public relations. 

In recent years, opportunities have come forth thanks to the introduction of 2+2 ministerial dialogues with many major countries including the United States and Japan, but this has happened with some specific countries and on an institutional basis on a pre-agreed basis. The Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative holds an important place in India’s Act East, Indo-Pacific, and Neighborhood policies.

In the last few weeks, India has stressed increasing ties with its neighbors. INS Sindhuveer has become the first submarine to join Myanmar’s navy. This is being seen by India as a step to counter China’s presence in its neighborhood. This is an important step taken by India amid China’s efforts to increase its influence in countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Last year witnessed the first time in the history of India that top officials of the country’s Foreign Ministry and the army have gone on a trip together outside India – to Myanmar. So it is clear that Myanmar has a big place in India’s strategic and diplomatic thinking.

During their two-day visit to Myanmar, Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla and Chief of Army Staff General Manoj Mukund Naravane met with State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and several ministers and officials. There are many possibilities for military and strategic cooperation between the two countries. It is expected that Naravane’s journey may have shed some light on some of these.

India worries about increasing investment by China in Myanmar. China has invested a lot, especially in the energy sector. India also wants to take advantage of cooperation with Myanmar in the energy sector, and perhaps that is why India wants to set up a US$6 billion petroleum refinery project near Yangon.

Myanmar is part of both India’s Neighborhood First and Act East policies. It is unfortunate that in spite of all their economic, cultural, and social similarities, Myanmar still does not hold as important a place for India as it should. 

In both India and Myanmar, the majority of the population is still dependent on agriculture. Therefore, agricultural cooperation between the two countries holds an important place.

The northeast Indian state of Manipur has always enjoyed a special status in increasing connectivity with Myanmar. Mizoram has also received increased attention in Modi’s Act East policy.

After being delayed for years, Myanmar’s Sittwe Port is expected to be ready by March. If this happens, then it will be a big step. Sittwe Port will be helpful in increasing India’s trade with Myanmar and other countries of Southeast Asia.

It is India’s responsibility, not compulsion, to pay attention to Myanmar and its neighboring countries and find ways of mutual cooperation. As long as the policymakers of the country do not pay attention to this, India will not be able to become a trusted partner of its neighbors. 

Rohit Dhyani

Rohit Dhyani is a journalist and professional documentary filmmaker. Follow him on Twitter: @RohitDhyani