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Game of Thrones: Indian PM Building Ties in Burma

India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh is now making the first visit by an Indian leader to next-door Burma in 25 years, even as the pace of Indian investment in Burma is dramatically rising. It is yet another move in the Asian game of thrones.

Some people write about the new power equations in Asia as if it were all about Chinese-US bilateral relations. That’s not the way Asians see it; this is not a new Cold War where two superpowers square off with their allies and satellites following behind.

Instead, the Asian power equation involves many different relations between many different countries. While Indian and US interests often lead them to act together, India is pursuing its own interests and its own independent foreign policy; where that coincides with US moves, fine. Where it doesn’t, India pursues its own vision and interests — and the US does the same.

One place where those interests largely coincide is Burma. Regular VM readers know we are following this story through a geopolitical rather than a human rights lens; we are less interested (though warmly in favor of) the human rights changes in Burma than we are of the geopolitical consequences of its move away from China towards a wider engagement with the maritime entente: Japan, India, Singapore, Australia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, South Korea and the US. Though bound by no formal group treaties, and continuing to act independently, these countries want to make sure China’s rise stays peaceful and that China respects its neighbors’ interests and pride as it grows.

For India, the new relationship with Burma offers the usual economic benefits of investment and trade plus some important strategic gains. The river port in northern Burma that India is helping to dredge and improve will provide a vital link to India’s remote northeastern provinces and make it easier for Delhi to supply and develop this backward and vulnerable part of the country. (China claims much of this territory and there are lots of tribal and minority issues in the area.)

But the surge of Indian interest and investments in Burma is also about asserting Indian interest in territory that was once part of the British Raj and of the subcontinental economic zone. The Burmese generals drove tens of thousands of Indian traders out of the country as part of a misguided nationalist frenzy, and since then Burma has looked more to China than to India for trade and investment. That looks to be changing now; Burma at least wants to balance its relationships and avoid a completely one-sided relationship with China.

India, like other members of the entente only more so, is happy to oblige.

The battle of Burma isn’t over. At the ground level, economic relations with China remain close, and the abundance of low cost Chinese goods flooding into the country is not going to stop. Economic ties create political interests; many in Burma will continue to advocate a pro-Beijing orientation. Over time, the question is whether the economic pull of the maritime countries can offset or neutralize the gravitational power that draws Burma toward China.

That essentially is the question in Asia as a whole. China hopes to draw the region towards itself using the lures of its vast and growing internal market, the accumulated capital now available for outward investment and the attraction of its products and, increasingly, its technology. The maritime entente doesn’t want to deny China a central role in the emerging new Asian system, but wants that role to be balanced and limited. China is looking to build Asia along a hub and spokes model — the countries around it will have deep ties with China and in every case the tie to China will be more important than the relatively weak connections among the ‘rim states’.

The maritime entente wants a strong wheel; they want the ties that bind the peripheral countries to be strong enough to balance the spokes that connect each country to the Chinese hub. Building that wheel is what US policy in Asia is about today; as India tries to strengthen its relations with Burma (or, for those who prefer, Myanmar), it is working to make sure that Burma’s relationships with other countries balance and limit the depth of its relationship with China.


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  • Anthony

    “…as if it were all about Chinese-US bilateral relations. That’s not the way Asians see it;” The above is an essential geopolitical point WRM as point envelopes both maritime entente and Beijing orientation – definite considerations for Pacific players.

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