Despite a lot of publicity of India’s so-called 'look east' policy originally framed by the UPA government almost 12 years ago and pursued more seriously by the Narendra Modi-led NDA government since 2014, the country’s East still appears to be the least visible on India’s radar of economic and political diplomacy. The policy seems to have rather enthused the People’s Republic of China to expand its strategic presence in the whole of the region located in India’s immediate east – Bangladesh and Myanmar, in particular.
China’s is Bangladesh’s No.1 trade and economic partner. And, so it is in the case of Myanmar. This is apart from the fact that China, sharing borders with India in the north as well as in the East, itself has emerged as India’s biggest import source. China’s trade and investment in both India and its immediate eastern neighbours such as Bangladesh and Myanmar is galloping while India’s “look east” policy progresses at a snail’s pace despite a reasonably good relation it enjoys with both the principal eastern countries. While China has built direct trade and transport links that operate regularly and freely with India’s two large eastern neighbours, using their natural resources, land and sea routes, India’s is still struggling to establish such a link with them over the years using each other’s resources across the border. The political trust between India and its immediate eastern neighbours seem to be lacking.
Politically, though the present Bangladesh government has become closer to India, it has yielded little economic benefit in India-Bangladesh relations, barring a few projects initiated by India in Bangladesh after lengthy dialogues. Historically and geographically, India and Bangladesh have been two most accessible neighbours to each other. But, economically, they are more distant friends than distant China, Bangladesh’s No.1 economic and trade partner. The government’s “look east” policy is yet to convince democratic Bangladesh that there exists a great opportunity for both the countries to work together to grow fast by judicially using natural and intellectual resources of each other.
Bangladesh runs a big trade deficit with China, and it seems to trust more the communist China than democratic India on strategic matters. Bangladesh doesn’t yet have an issue with China on the latter’s diversion of a key tributary to the Brahmaputra river at its source in Tibet to build a massive dam and hydro-electric facility there though the river serves as an essential lifeline to Bangladesh. The river flows down into Bangladesh through India’s north-eastern state of Assam. India is worried and made several communications expressing its concern with the Chinese authorities. Bangladesh considers China as a more reliable economic and strategic partner than next door India.
One almost gets a similar impression on India-Myanmar relations. Myanmar, formerly Burma, which was once part of British India and shared a lot of cultural and religious ties with India, is yet to emerge as one of India’s real strategic friends in the Bay of Bengal peninsular region closely linking India with Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Thailand. Majority Buddhist Myanmar has a reasonably good presence of Hindus and even Sikhs, who have settled down in this beautiful country having a population of only around 5.3 crores. Capital Yangon’s Durgabari Hindu temple, which is frequented by most comers in the city, is over 127 years old. Myanmar’s Buddhist community regularly visits Buddha-Gaya in India. Air India offers a thrice-a-week all-economy flight service between Kolkata and Yangon with a halt in Gaya although the airfare charged by India’s state-owned carrier is almost twice the amount charged for much longer former Kolkata flights to Singapore or Kuala Lumpur.
However, this religious and cultural proximity with India had little effect on India-Myanmar strategic relations – both economic and diplomatic. Inexplicably, India had little diplomatic ties with Myanmar’s military regime for decades, leaving its neighbour to get closer to China, Thailand, Japan and Singapore. India’s “look east” policy has nearly avoided Myanmar for years. Interestingly, the economy of Myanmar, as also of Bangladesh, is growing at a faster pace than India. The per capita GDP in Myanmar is US$ 1228.00.
India has lately improved its presence in the newly democratic republic of Myanmar under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi. However, it may take quite long for India to acquire the trust of the defence and foreign offices of Myanmar especially in the light of Indian army’s hot chase of militants in Myanmar’s northern region often keeping the administration in Yangon in the dark. Among several such hot pursuits, Myanmar is yet to forget the “Operation Golden Bird”, conducted along the Indo-Myanmar border close to Mizoram under the aegis of 57 Mountain Division that was portrayed as a joint operation between the armed forces of India and Myanmar. But in reality, this operation was planned and executed by the Indian Army alone. The Myanmar army had no clue. There have been more such hot pursuits of militants by Indian army into the Myanmar territory in recent times. And, India must thank Myanmar and its previous military regime for not making an issue of such Indian army adventures as Pakistan recently made of India’s strategic strike against Pakistani terrorist camps across LoC in Kashmir.
Currently, India’s share of Myanmar’s foreign trade is hardly eight percent, or only around US$2 billion. This can, however, substantially go up if India pays a more serious attention to its “look east” policy towards this strategic and culturally closer neighbour. The recent visits to Yangon by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and to New Delhi by Myanmar President Kyaw should do well to improve the economic and strategic relations between the two countries. Modi said he is ready to support Myanmar in every possible way on its march to security, reconciliation and prosperity. India is presently the ninth largest investor in Myanmar with an investment of only $750 million by 22 companies, including OVL, Tata Motors, TVS and Escorts, as against the total foreign investment in Myanmar of over $60 billion. This must improve substantially to make India’s “look east” initiative work in the region.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)