Sunday, Apr 07, 2002
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By C. Raja Mohan
For India, Myanmar is the land bridge to Indo-China and South-East Asia, over which goods and people and ideas have travelled for centuries. Just as China has stepped up its efforts to gain access to the Indian Ocean through Myanmar, India is pitching to gain an entry into the South China Sea.
In Myanmar, China's emphasis is on developing a North-South transport corridor along the Irrawaddy River that will let Beijing reach both Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. New Delhi in contrast wants an East-West corridor cutting horizontally through Myanmar towards Thailand and Vietnam.
The idea of a Sino-Indian rivalry has long informed the international perceptions of Indian and Chinese attempts to develop their influence in Myanmar since it reopened itself to the world in 1988. But sources in the Indian delegation say, there is a danger of over-determining the notion of a Sino-Indian rivalry in Myanmar.
The sources suggest, both India and China are two important neighbours of Myanmar, and neither can wish away the interests and the presence of the other. ``India and China will be running in the same fields of South-East Asia for a long time to come, and it would be unwise to see Sino-Indian relations in terms of a political rivalry''.
Indian and Chinese activism in Myanmar and South-East could be termed at best a competition in which Yangon stands to gain by playing the balancing act and receiving valuable assistance from both Beijing and New Delhi. For example, the transport corridors being planned by India and China will help Myanmar develop its own internal infrastructure.
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Both India and China have their own proposals for multilateral cooperation in the region. China is trying to develop the Mekong basin, which involves six countries. The great river starts out in Tibet and flows through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
In late 2000, India unveiled its own proposals for Ganga-Mekong Cooperation involving India, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The exclusion of China and Bangladesh from this has not gone unnoticed. India is also part of the BIMSTEC that involves Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand a kind of Bay of Bengal community.
To add to the confusion, there is the idea of a growth quadrangle within the subcontinent that involves trans-border projects among India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. And cutting across all these is Kunming initiative from China that wants to promote economic integration among China's south-west, India's north-east, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Are there too many talk-shops about the prospects for economic cooperation in the region? Some would say more the merrier. The key question is whether they can come up with tangible projects, like the trilateral road project among India, Thailand and Myanmar that has been initiated here today.
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For India, Myanmar is more than a land bridge to South-East Asia. It also offers a way of reaching the north-east that is now connected to the mainland by a thin corridor above Bangladesh. This has made transportation to the north-east costly, time consuming and vulnerable to disruption. Dhaka remains reluctant to give transit facilities that will make India's links to the north-east simpler and more efficient.
As an alternative, India is looking to develop a port at Sittwe on the Northern coast of Myanmar, which links up to Mizoram through the Kaladan River and a land stretch.
The development of that route will allow India to ship goods from Calcutta to the north-east through Sittwe.
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The Indian delegation led by the External Affairs Minister, Jaswant Singh, went native last night. At a banquet hosted by the Myanmarese Foreign Minister, U Win Aung, Mr. Singh and his colleagues showed up in local gear. Mr. Singh wore a royal red ``lungyi'', a white Myanmarese shirt and a beige jacket. Perhaps it was a signal that India will go all the way in deepening ties to Myanmar and its beautiful people.
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