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Quad’s challenges in Bay of Bengal

The four Quad countries will also influence regional politics in Asia (IANS)

As the military takeover in Myanmar has provided a further opportunity to China to enhance its profile in the region, the Quad partners (India, Japan, Australia and the United States) have to reimagine their strategic plans for the Bay of Bengal area taking into consideration the importance of three regional stakeholders namely Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, argues PM Heblikar.

The military coup in Myanmar (February 01, 2021) has significantly altered the strategic power balance in South East Asia. This has caught the western powers and other stake-holders off-guard, thus creating grounds for urgent reappraisal of policies for the Indo-Pacific region. It is clearly a major challenge to the Biden administration and it remains to be seen as to how the US and its allies react to the situation in Myanmar in the coming weeks.

The important regional players namely India, Japan, South Korea, ASEAN and China too will have to assess its impact on their respective national security interests and longterm objectives since all of them have major stakes at play in Myanmar.

It is obvious that the Myanmar military and China have emerged stronger from this development. Both countries are interdependent on each other to meet their respective political and strategic objectives. The manner by which Senior General Min Aung Hlaing assumed the powers of head of state is a matter for debate. Equally controversial are his assurances of holding elections within next twelve months. The transition to multiparty democracy has been dealt a severe blow from which a recovery is not expected in near future. The next several weeks will see Myanmar enter into uncharted waters as the opposition to the military will graduate to the next level employing technology and unconventional methods to compete for mass support and influence. The military is unfazed by international reactions to it seizing power on Feb 01, 2020. The opposition to the military coup has been unprecedented and has surprised the authorities. Ten ethnic national organisations that signed a ceasefire agreement with the government have walked away from it and pledged support to the pro-democracy parties. The powerful Buddhist clergy have thrown in their lot against the government.

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China is the major beneficiary of this situation in Myanmar. China will now be able to focus on the way forward to maximise its strategic relations with Myanmar under Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and his administration that will occupy the seat of power for times to come. The visit of Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi to Myanmar ten days prior to the military coup and his meeting with the top three personalities namely the then President Win Myint, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and Senior General Win Min Aung Hlaing reflected Beijing’s concern about the evolving situation and perhaps to stave off a potential crisis. It appears that Beijing’s intervention failed to produce desired results. Media reports of mobilisation of Chinese PLA assets along the border and movement of aircraft carrying equipment between Kunming and Myanmar underlined the fact that Beijing was convinced that a major political drama would be unfolding shortly. The Chinese media especially the Global Times covered the developments, often pointing fingers at India and the USA and raising the specter of possible intervention.

China is backing an ASEAN- led dialogue with the Myanmar military government. The Myanmar foreign minister has visited Thailand and Indonesia for briefing his counterparts; this is the first visit by a junta leader overseas since the military take-over. A large demonstration outside the Indonesian Embassy in Yangon few days has sent signals to Jakarta of the sullen mood in Myanmar and cautioning it against giving a free pass to support the junta. This had desired results. It is obvious that by recommending the ASEAN to play mediator in the crisis, China is seemingly pre-empting an outside intervention led by either the US or the EU.

The military coup has come as a major boost to its strategic interests in this region after having been on the backfoot through-out 2020 for its association with the corona-virus pandemic and raking up territorial and maritime disputes with India, Taiwan, Japan, USA and its allies and suborning democracy in Hong Kong.

The ten-month stand-off with India on the western segment of the IndoTibet border has dented China’s image extensively in the region as many waited to see how the situation played out.

It is well known that Myanmar forms an integral part of China’s “Look South Policy”, enunciated in mid-80s for the development of its landlocked provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan and Guizhou by connecting them to the Indian Ocean through a multi-modal transit corridor along the Irrawaddy River. It is in this direction that China has carefully cultivated Myanmar by generous financial assistance and political support at all times irrespective of the government in Yangon or Nay PyiDaw.

The Irrawaddy Transit Corridor that will run through Myanmar before emptying into the Bay of Bengal has become a major threat to India’s security in the region. Oil and gas pipe line that runs south to north across carrying energy requirements of China is another major security headache for India.

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India has publicly expressed its deep concerns over the recent development namely the military take-over and articulated support to the transition to democratic process and has reiterated it at several fora. This position has not changed. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken to several world leaders, including US President Biden and his Minister of External Affairs Minister Jaishankar too has talked to his counterparts, including those belonging to the QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue).

A brief background to India Myanmar relations is necessary here as enumerated below:

  • India views stability, safety and security in Myanmar as critical for peace and prosperity in the region and for its sensitive northeast region. Myanmar is the bridge to ASEAN and beyond for economic development under the Look East Policy (LEP) (1992-2014) and for its Act East Policy (2014 onwards).
  • The period during 2010-2021 is perhaps the best in the history of bilateral relations as compared to 1988-2010, when the military ruled the country under the SLORC and SPDC. During this period, Burmese military harbored grave anti-India suspicions and trust deficit levels were very high during major portion 10 ethnic national organisations that signed a ceasefire agreement with the government have pledged support to the prodemocracy parties WIKIMEDIA of Senior General Than Shwe’s rule, Myanmar granted patronage to Indian insurgents, turned blindeye to Pakistani machinations and to growing Chinese influence in Myanmar – all of are detrimental to India’s interests.
  • India’s support to multiparty democracy had been steadfast since 1966 and took on a comprehensive form in 1988-90 as observers of Burma will testify. India’s decision to award the Jawaharlal Nehru Peace prize to DawAung San SuuKyi (DASSK) in 1995 caused a major decline in bilateral relations and also impacted the counterinsurgency operations under operation “Golden Bird”. India hosted a large number of Burmese refugees besides giving shelter to elected NLD MPs and others from 1990- 2010; and
  • India gave Myanmar $10 million as Line of Credit in 1997 breaching US sanctions announced by US President Clinton and in same year participated in a wholly Indian Engineering Exhibition in Yangon. However, since 2010 both sides were enjoying extraordinary relations at highest political levels and things took turn for better after 2014. India’s equation with twin centers of power namely the military and political leadership was unprecedented. This has seen expressions in all fields including supply of lethal and non-lethal military hardware. While India has maintained an even keel in its military to military relations, it ensured its political aspects were safeguarded. In its quest for improving bilateral relations, India continues its people friendly policies. The deficit trust has been addressed much to the mutual satisfaction of both sides. The cross-border strike against Indian insurgents in 2015 was a broad expression of growing confidence in dealing with sensitive issues. India has refused to comment on the Rohingya issue but pledged economic support for its resolution.

India will be expected to remain on course in its relations with Myanmar. There is no doubt both sides will have exchanged notes on the developments. BIMST-EC initiative to create grounds for rapprochement and reconciliation.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) is another important platform which needs to factor in both military and non-military initiatives in involving Myanmar and Bangladesh in its strategic plans for this region. Both Myanmar and Bangladesh are crucial for peace and stability in the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean Region. Both are being wooed by Beijing with billions of dollars of financial investments under the BRI initiative. The QUAD will be strengthened by the inclusion of the “Five Eyes” community (The Five Eyes is an intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States), it may have to use its QUAD will be strengthened by inclusion of the “Five Eyes” community. It may have to use its financial prowess to invest in Myanmar WIKIMEDIA The Indian Army Chief Gen. MM Naravane indicated this during an interaction with the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), New Delhi few days ago.

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There are two major issues that underline the strategic importance of Myanmar to the peace and stability in this region. It is China’s gateway to the Bay of Bengal and onwards to destinations in the Indo-Pacific region. Unlike Pakistan, The Myanmar military will not allow it to become a vassal state of China. The Tatmadaw takes the matter of sovereignty seriously and there are several examples testify to it, one of them being cancellation of the Myitsone dam project by Gen. Thein Sein soon after he became Head of State. Last year Senior General Min Aung Hlaing called out China publicly for aiding and abetting insurgents in Rakhine state.

It is a matter of interest to note that unlike Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the Myanmar government under the NLD, under Aung San SuuKyi, had raised the partnership ratio at Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (KEZ), to 70:30 from previous 85:15 and insisted upon Strategic Environment Assessment (SEA) and subsequently Environment Impact Assessment (EIA). It is the interest of India and Bangladesh to participate in the EIA as it will impact them in many ways.

There are options here for consideration by the international community to rescue Myanmar from Chinese embrace without loss of time. The first obviously is to broadly engage in dialogue and discussions with the ruling dispensation and create a threshold for participating in economic development, political interaction to allay fears of the military and create a road map mutually acceptable to all shades of opinion in the country. Myanmar has reached out to its ASEAN allies namely Thailand and Indonesia to brief them about the changed political circumstances in the country. It will meet the other stake holders such as Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and other members. Japan has been in touch with the Myanmar authorities and has been much more proactive than anybody else. Given the factions and frictions in ASEAN, their efficacy of mounting a diplomatic initiative is doubtful.

The other option is to look at a regional grouping comprising, India, Japan, South Korea and Bangladesh to interact with Myanmar or make it a financial prowess to invest in Myanmar and Bangladesh extensively to avoid a situation witnessed in Pakistan.

Another country that may warrant consideration is Sri Lanka, which today is groaning under debts to the People’s Republic of China. If an assessment is made of Chinese investments in Sri Lanka, it will be seen that a majority of it is on its west coast. China has refurbished the oil storage tanks at Muthurajawella, on the outskirts of Colombo and another near Kandy. It has financed the Norrocholai coal power plant near Puttalam, north of Colombo and has taken up the massive Colombo port project including the container terminals. Hambantota, is of course, its jewel in the crown.

China is all in preparation for the operationalisation of the XinjiangGwadar Multi-modal transport corridor as also for traffic that will emanate from the Irrawaddy Transit Route. The West ignored this development to its peril. The QUAD therefore has to reimagine its strategic plans for the Bay of Bengal area taking into consideration the importance of three regional stakeholders namely Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, where China is a dominant player.

(PM Heblikar is a former Special Secretary, Government of India. He is a specialist on Insurgency and Counter-insurgency in Northeast region and its external manifestations. The article has been reproduced with permission from the magazine Geopolitics)