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With submarine, India Myanmar maritime cooperation comes of age

With submarine, India Myanmar maritime cooperation comes of age

The recent announcement by India to give a Russian-made Kilo-class conventional submarine to Myanmar, the first submarine for the Myanmar Navy, is a boost to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) maritime cooperation doctrine announced in 2015.

Former ambassador to Myanmar, G Mukhopadhyay says, "India and Myanmar have a common coastline and a settled maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. The gift of the submarine to Myanmar is a sign of growing trust and confidence between the Indian and Myanmar Armed Forces, particularly the Navy, and a logical step in defence relations starting with submarine training a few years back, as also steadily improving political relations.”

In what was initiated two decades ago by former prime minister AB Vajpayee, the renewed defence cooperation with Myanmar seems to be coming of age. In year 2000, Vajpayee had on the advice of the then National Security Advisor (NSA) Brajesh Mishra instructed former army chief Gen VP Malik to discreetly lead a tri-services delegation to Myanmar in a bid to build relations with the Myanmar military. The tri-services team, which spent a day in Mandalay with the Myanmarese Vice Chairman, also had an Indian naval commodore.

The 1,930 km long coastline that Myanmar shares in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, makes it a strategically important neighbor for India.

The recent visit of Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla accompanied by the Army Chief General MM Naravane, which was viewed by certain quarters as unusual, was reflective of the high priority attached by New Delhi to Naypyitaw. Gen Naravane’s attendance should not come as a surprise given that he has served as military attaché to Myanmar which makes him an experienced old hand. A little over two decades ago, as a Colonel, Gen Naravane helped lay the building blocks of the robust relationship we see today, one which helped former army chief Malik do most of the heavy-lifting when he led the military delegation in 2000.

Besides announcing the US$6 billion oil refinery project and the Indian-assisted Trilateral Highway, besides the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit, the other highlights that dominated the Shringla-Naravane visit, was the Indian Naval submarine–INS Sindhuvir, a desire which Myanmar's Deputy Defence Minister had disclosed in 2017.

Soon after this, the Indian Navy sent INS Sindhuvir to retrofit at the Vishakhapatnam-based Hindustan Shipyard. Sindhuvir entered refit on August 10, 2017, and was delivered on January 31, 2020.

While the refit was taking place, India and Myanmar announced their first naval war games in the Bay of Bengal. The very first edition of the India Myanmar Naval Exercise (IMNEX) was hosted by India in 2018 on the east coast, in which a kilo-class submarine Sindhughosh had participated, thereby giving a first-hand demo to the Myanmar Navy. IMNEX-2019 was held in the Bay of Bengal last October where both navies fielded frigates and offshore patrol vessels.

<strong>India Myanmar Maritime Cooperation</strong>
INS Sindhuvir is not the first naval equipment that India has handed over to Myanmar. In 2019, following the Myanmar Armed Forces’ Commander-in-Chief General Min Aung Hlaing’s India visit, Myanmar received its first batch of the Advanced Light Torpedo (TAL) 'Shyena' as part of the US$37.9 million deal between both the nations. Other equipment like acoustic drones, naval sonars, too have been given to Myanmar by New Delhi.

The Kilo-class attack submarine Sindhuvir is being touted more for patrol purposes, but its hard to ignore the increasing Chinese footprint in the region, given the fact that Bangladesh operates Chinese submarines and also aims to build a submarine base in Cox’s Bazar with Chinese collaboration.

Former military attaché to Vietnam, Laos &amp; Cambodia, Indian Army’s retired Lt Gen Satish Dua supports the idea of curbing Chinese influence. “Coco Island is the southernmost Island of Myanmar just north of Andaman &amp; Nicobar Islands. China had some presence on Coco Islands in the 1990s. They had a signal detachment, perhaps a monitoring post, apparently discontinued later. But Chinese interest in Myanmar must be countered. To that extent this submarine is a significant development. Important so that China does not develop a permanent presence there.”

Given the strategically located 2,210 km long Irrawaddy River which runs from north to south, dividing Myanmar into east and west, makes it crucial for both countries to have a strong naval cooperation, as it has its mouth in the Bay of Bengal. Western Irrawaddy deals more with the land border while the eastern part is maritime and has a strong Chinese influence in terms of trade and communications. It is imperative for India not to let the Chinese influence go beyond Irrawaddy closer home to the Indian border.

Former ambassador Mukhopadhyay calls Myanmar-China relations friendly. “China has a long land border with Myanmar to its north, and is now building a deep sea port at Kyaukphyu in the Bay of Bengal under agreement with Myanmar,” he says..