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Is Myanmar a Good Testing Ground for How Far India Will Go to Counter China’s Influence?

Myanmar's military chief Min Aung Hlaing (C) along with his wife (R) and China's ambassador to Myanmar Chen Hai (L) attend a ceremony on the eve of the Lunar New Year, in Yangon on January 21, 2023. AFP

By Saniya Kulkarni

There have been developments in the China-Myanmar relationship since the first visit of former Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Bagan following the coup in 2021. When we last wrote of this visit, Chinese support of the military junta was rather subtle, evidenced by the fact that Wang did not meet with self-appointed leader Min Aung Hlaing.

The official position was still shrouded by Beijing’s reluctance to engage fully with the junta, and with the Russian invasion of Ukraine still unfolding in 2022, it was difficult to say with certainty how Beijing would respond to either.

Almost two years on, the shift in its Myanmar policy has been quite drastic. The China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), which has been on the back burner for a few years, was brought to the forefront again, when plans for a high-speed railway line between Yunnan and Rakhine were resuscitated after having been abandoned in 2014. 

Since the coup, Chinese investments in Myanmar have soared. It became obvious that Beijing was throwing its weight behind the junta after former Foreign Minister Qin Gang met with Min Aung Hlaing in May 2023, making him the highest-ranking Chinese official to do so since the coup.

On the other hand, India has been maintaining a balancing act with the junta despite being more severely affected by the issue in terms of an influx of refugees and instability along its border. More recently, the ongoing violence in India’s northeastern state of Manipur has prompted New Delhi to address issues in the region, albeit in a non-definitive manner.

The U.S. would undoubtedly prefer if India threw its weight behind Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement. It would also be in India’s interest to counter China’s access to the Indian Ocean through the development of the Kyaukphyu deep-sea port, which is another project under the CMEC that has been expedited by the junta.

However, domestic tensions between cross-border ethnic groups muddle the issue for India, and a decisive stance would mean complicated politics that the current government may not be too inclined to delve into.

The direct answer, then, is no; Myanmar would not be indicative of India’s willingness – and arguably, capacity – to counter China’s influence in its neighboring region.

However, Myanmar demonstrates that India’s complex relationship with its neighbors simply cannot be boiled down to economics alone. Between the two regional giants, India has more at stake than China when it comes to its historic ethnic ties with its neighbors. That is not to say that similar ties with China are not significant, but the increasingly relevant identity politics in India’s northeast is deeply intertwined with ethnic conflict in Myanmar.

While this aspect opens up space for engagement, it is still delicate, and whether India is willing to utilise it to promote its own influence at the expense of Beijing’s, remains to be seen.

Saniya Kulkarni is a project coordinator at LSEIDEAS

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