India’s Reinvigorated Look East Policy Requires Myanmar Connectivity

By Hemant Krishan Singh

 

For over two decades, India’s Look East Policy (LEP) has been hobbled by one major constraint: balancing India’s example of democratic governance with the strategic need to engage the military regime in Myanmar. With that country’s gradual democratic opening in recent years, the focus is shifting to energizing India’s slow and steady efforts to develop connectivity infrastructure and boost economic and security ties with Myanmar.

As this Issue Brief by Sanjay Pulipaka, ICREIR Wadhwani Programme Fellow, indicates there are major shortfalls not only in the physical connectivity between India’s Northeast and this vital gateway country linking India and Southeast Asia, but also in soft systems to facilitate cross border trade, commerce and travel.

India’s poor track record on project completion stands exposed by interminable delays which undermine both its interests and regional image. High level visits, like that of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India in May 2012, can yield agreements but cannot deliver on implementation unless there is improved oversight and coordination within the government of India. This report identifies several areas that require urgent attention, including:

  • Coordinated socio-economic development of border areas, improved infrastructure for crossborder trade and travel, and direct civil aviation links.
  • Completion of Kaladan multi-modal transport project and the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway; planning of future railway connectivity.
  • India’s participation in the development of deep sea ports such as Dawei to speed up progress on the Mekong India Economic Corridor designed to provide seamless connectivity from Chennai to Hanoi.
  • Promotion of greater engagement of the Indian private sector in exploring economic and commercial opportunities in Myanmar.
  • Capacity building support for the Myanmar navy for bilateral cooperation on maritime security in the eastern reaches of the Bay of Bengal.
  • Support for democratic institution building in Myanmar through training of professionals and sharing of India’s vast experience in parliamentary democracy.
  • Advancing complementarities on Myanmar initiatives with regional partners like Japan and the United States.
  • Offering assistance to Myanmar to shoulder its responsibilities as Chair of ASEAN in 2014.

While it is true that Myanmar’s  democratic transformation is still tentative and the country faces several complex domestic challenges, from social unrest to lingering ethnic insurgencies, India faces a clear test of its resolve to engage and act East by strengthening connectivity, trade, security and other institutional linkages with Myanmar.

With oil and gas pipelines and railway links being constructed by China between Kyaukphyu in the Bay of Bengal and Kunming, Myanmar has already become Beijing’s link to the Indian Ocean. It remains to be seen if India can also add urgency to its efforts to convert Myanmar into its land bridge to mainland and maritime reaches of Southeast Asia. India’s reinvigorated LEP, to be credible, demands no less.

Ambassador Hemant Krishan Singh is the Chair Professor, ICRIER – Wadhwani Chair in India – US Policy Studies. This post is adapted from the Chair’s column in the Issue Brief of 31 March 2013.

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