Looking East: The Gateway to South East Asia
It is no body’s case that South Asia and primarily India is landlocked in all directions from Gujarat to Arunachal Pradesh because of the geographical tyranny posed by Pakistan and China, both having complex border disputes with India. The only land opening available to India is to its East through Bangladesh and Myanmar.
This opening, also referred to as India’s gateway to South East Asia, has come in for frequent discussions as Indian Foreign Policy and its delivery models have forever been playing catch up with the Chinese model which as it is has a 30 years lead over India. Given Indian Foreign Policy’s lethargy over engaging the crucial countries of Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar this gateway is very slow in opening up.
The tyranny of geography mandates India to work closely with these four countries from a position of equanimity by offering proactive unilateral initiatives to permit free trade and transit to their advantage. Simplistically put, this would enable all these countries access to each others markets and extend their reach towards the South East Asian countries. However the statistical records reflect poorly in India reaching out to all these countries. It has thus lost strategic space in these countries to China.
Nepal is increasingly seen to be moving into the Chinese orbit with Prime Minister Wen Jiabao visiting Nepal early this year whilst no Indian Prime Minister has chosen to visit Nepal for the last ten years. The $250 million line of credit and 80,000 tonnes of food grain supply to Nepal during Prime Minister Bhattarai’s visit to India last year failed to generate pro India sentiment in Nepal based on continuing hostility of the Maoists. As per an IDSA comment, a new controversy seems to have emerged in Nepal with regard to Bhattarai signing Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (BIPPA) during his New Delhi visit. Bhattarai’s move has been opposed since he heads a transitional government and the country is still to have a constitution. This has widened the rift within the UCPN-Maoist. The revision of 1950 treaty of Friendship is also on the anvil while the Maoist government is actively considering proposals to disband the Indian Gurkha regiments. This exposes serious chinks in India’s foreign policy vis-a-vis Nepal where the Chinese are making steady and rapid progress through various initiatives such as the Lhasa – Kathmandu friendship highway and a score of other infrastructure projects. That Mandarin is now the preferred language in Nepal speaks for Nepal cozying up to China. The container port coming up at Shigatse in Tibet is an obvious move by China to fraternise Nepal. Water woes still continue between the two countries and the trade and transit agenda is suffering by the day.
Bangladesh, a country known for military coups and governments hostile towards India, finally got a pro India government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. However, Indian foreign policy weighing under the coalition politics has thus far failed to capitalise on the positive sentiment. The falling apart of the Teesta water accord did more singular damage to the bilateral relations than many other initiatives as it made the Sheikh Hasina government lose credibility within Bangladesh’s political landscape. Expecting a trade and transit corridor after failing to yield on water, (Farakka, Teesta and Tipaimukh) is a tough ask. Nevertheless, the Bangladesh government successfully overcame all opposition and had agreed in principle to provide transit facilities to India. The two countries were set to sign an agreement to this effect in September 2011. However, India’s turnaround on the Teesta agreement prompted Bangladesh to hold back on the transit issue. Of special interest to note here is the fact that despite its apparent pro India stance, the Sheikh Hasina government, which is running short on time, is banking heavily on China to promote trade and transit, especially the Chittagong port. India has everything to lose by being rigid.
Myanmar has been discussed at length by South Asian Idea (here, here and here) to highlight lack of delivery on part of India. Combined with Bangladesh, Myanmar offers to be the Indian gateway to South East Asia. However the result sheet of Indian initiatives in Myanmar reflect poorly purely because India has failed to deliver on various counts of infrastructure development – the most glamorous being the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project intended to facilitate trade between India’s Mizoram State and other countries. The project includes dredging the Kaladan River to enable cargo vessels to navigate the river from Sittwe in Burma to Mizoram State in India, and it involves the construction of a river port at Paletwa. It also includes construction of a highway between Paletwa and Mizoram State. However due to poor delivery model the project is under severe criticism from political parties in Myanmar. They fear that the project would increase the salinity levels of their paddy and bean fields. As per Chin National Party chairman Zam Ciin Paul the project will help India access South East Asia while hurting Myanmar significantly. The key is controlling saline water from entering the agricultural fields – something India has not been able to assure Myanmar about. Meanwhile China is overcoming its Malacca Dilemma by constructing the deep-sea port at Kyauk Phu and connecting it to Kunming in Yunan province through a network of rail, road and oil pipelines. The Ledo Road, offered first to India, has been completed in record time by China. Thus the centrality of Myanmar’s geographic, cultural and historic positioning between India and China must drive India’s foreign policy.
There is a fascinating chapter in Thant Mint-U’s book “Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia – Where China Meets India”, on the dreams they weave in Kunming, where they see a future for Yunnan’s wealth and prosperity in terms of India’s economy, which the road and rail links through Myanmar can facilitate. MK Bhadrakumar argues that Delhi, on the other hand, needs a leap of faith to have a counterpart dream for India’s impoverished north-eastern States in terms of Yunnan. The spirit of ‘competition’ can be self-defeating. Yet, Yunnan needs to be compared with India’s neglected north-eastern States.
Myanmar, which is now opening up to the world, is awaiting Indian engagement in rebuilding its economic, political and social sectors. Geography also offers India the best tools to assist Myanmar take positive steps towards its transition to democracy. The onus is on India to take the next proactive unilateral initiatives to widen the scope of its involvement to open this gateway. This would require strategic road maps shunning myopic policies to invest heavily in connecting India to South East Asia.
The track record of Indian foreign policy in tackling with the Eastern neighbours is at best short-sighted and mired with domestic political considerations rather than having a long-term perspective. Time is running short as India dithers and China moves at a canter to occupy the strategic space vacated or not occupied by India. The returns of exploiting the gateway to South East Asia can not be bargained politically.The government has to build domestic consensus and speed up its international initiatives for the larger strategic, economic and political good.
Driving from Kolkata to Singapore via Imphal and Mandalay on a six lane highway should not be tough to imagine.
- Revive liberation spirit, Bangladesh tells West Bengal (thehindu.com)
- Indian Foreign Policy – in Search of Its Destination. (thoughtsunclassified.wordpress.com)
- The Road to Moreh (southasianidea.com)
- India’s Wild East unprepared for new Myanmar (thehimalayantimes.com)
- India favours bilateral end to sea dispute | Bangladesh | bdnews24.com (revivers.wordpress.com)
- The great game in Myanmar (thehindu.com)