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Myanmar moves closer to India as China threatens stability

When Myanmar General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the Myanmar military, mentioned to journalists last month in faraway Russia that there should be stronger international cooperation to fight terrorism, many were taken aback by his comments. In an interaction with the media, he had said that terrorist groups exist because strong forces support them. Many believed that he was referring to China, which has been caught supplying arms to the Arakan Army and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, both of which are active in the Rakhine state.

Importantly, the Myanmar General held talks with Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh over strengthening ties between their armed forces, including counter-insurgency operations along the long Indian-Myanmar border. Intense Chinese activity around Indian borders has undermined India's relations with many of its neighbors. With Myanmar, however, these had had a contrary effect. The two nations are coming closer not just in defense matters but also in the development arena.

Myanmar, whose ethnic diversity is surprisingly wide, is riven with numerous internal conflicts owing to different groups seeking autonomy, independence or self-determination. The Myanmar Army is increasingly unearthing sophisticated arms with Chinese markings from the insurgent groups on the Myanmar-China border. Often, these arms reach Indian insurgents in the North East. Myanmar also discovered that rebels on its northern borders had acquired sophisticated knowledge in terror activities, which was not possible without support from a bigger nation.

Recent reports found that Pakistan is also trying to foment trouble in Myanmar by trying to cultivate the Rohingya people for terror activities.

Separately, arrests on the Thailand-Myanmar border by Thai security found Pakistanis involved in procuring Chinese arms and supplying these to insurgents in Myanmar.

Both India and China have development projects in Myanmar. While the Chinese are trying to access the sea and the ports in Myanmar through their Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), India too is building roads and development projects. The Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project aims to do just that—open up road and sea routes between Rakhine and Chin provinces in Myanmar to Mizoram and Kolkata in India. This project has come under attack by rebels in Myanmar, who have been using China-made weapons to hit Indian development projects. Many in India believe that China is undermining Indian projects in Myanmar.

Myanmar is also unhappy with Beijing as the latter has been arm-twisting the country over the BRI, which the former sees as exploitative. A little less than half of Myanmar's debt is because of the BRI. Having tasted bitter Chinese medicine in the China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), where China is pushing India's eastern neighbor into a debt trap, the country is trying to wriggle out of the Chinese stranglehold.

Caught in Chinese pincers, an apprehensive nation has been inching closer to Delhi for some time now. It has handed over North-East militants sheltering in Myanmar to India many times and is conducting joint-operations with Indian security agencies against the various insurgent groups.

Feeling unsettled with the Chinese games, Myanmar has turned to its western neighbor for its military as well as civilian needs. It wants India to supply weapons, provide training to its men in Indian military institutions as well as help it build infrastructure. Myanmar which had been trying to balance the two giants that straddle the country from its north and its west, is now cosying up to India..