Constituent policy

Where is Myanmar’s neighborhood policy going first; what are India’s options?

A recalibration exercise that balances ideology as well as pragmatism is imperative for India

Myanmar – whoever governs its state – is naturally the crucial linchpin of India’s “Act East policy”.

Since the masterful policy of “Neighborhood First” was unveiled by the Modi dispensation, the principles that had been laid down to guide it – mainly through a central element built to foster cordial relations and synergistic economic development with its neighbors – seem to have run into a “fog of misunderstanding”.

To this end, two crucial neighbors of India, Bangladesh and Nepal, are moving away from India’s orbit, turning instead to China for aspects such as submarines, the “maintenance” base of missiles (in the case of the first) and a “Himalayan strategic calculation”. (in the case of the latter). Bhutan has also signed a memorandum of understanding with China to resolve its long-standing border issue. While the measures taken by some of India’s neighbors do not in themselves constitute threats, the fact that New Delhi has not been able to ward off Chinese influence in its neighborhood certainly adds to the discomfiture of most strategic observers. indians.

Economic and security interests

Events in Myanmar, even after the passage of a year since the military takeover on February 1, 2021, pose a level of uncertainty to India. The situation does not bode well for India’s economic and security interests for which Myanmar is a crucial entity. Civil unrest continues to rage in Myanmar with no signs of abating. Indeed, one of the latest incidents was the January 14, 2022 attack by the Chinese National Army against the Myanmar military as well as the People’s Liberation Army (Manipur), an Indian insurgent group that s was aligned with the Tatmadaw after the military coup. .


There was also an acceleration by the People’s Defense Forces in its efforts against the junta, but this time targeting “the army and its resources”. However, its success would hinge on the ability of the National Unity Government (NUG) in exile to cobble together a united front under the leadership of a senior military official from within the Tatmadaw who could be persuaded to leave the Myanmar military. .

On the international front, the case for Myanmar’s future has grown murkier due to divided voices. Major countries like China and Russia “supported” the military coup and India abstained from voting against the military coup. ASEAN too, at its April 24, 2021 summit, did not make much of the takeover and there was a clear “participation” in the way representatives “blamed” both the opposition and the army for violence. Moreover, the fact that Min Aung Hlaing attended the summit made it clear that even ASEAN “recognizes” that it now has to work with the junta.

This was also confirmed by the non-admission of the NUG, the shadow government that was formed to oppose the military in mid-April 2021. However, the most important aspect that was closely watched was the 76th United Nations General Assembly which ended in September. December 27, 2021. The fact that Aung Thurein, who was appointed Myanmar’s new envoy to the UN, “did not speak” on the last day as scheduled, seems to herald an unfavorable event. sine qua non for the Tatmadaw. Such developments coming on the heels of a renewed call for “people’s defensive war” by the NUG would have negative ramifications for Naypyidaw’s goal of consolidating his position in Myanmar as well as on the international stage.

Recalibration exercise

But notwithstanding developments surrounding Myanmar’s future, India should prepare for a strategy that is not only consistent with its ‘neighborhood first’ policy of which the ‘Act East’ is a subset, but also addresses the issue of insurgent groups stationed in Myanmar. For this, a recalibration exercise taking into account a matrix that balances well between ideology and pragmatism is necessary. Such a policy should take into account the steps that Russia and China have taken to arm the Tatmadaw.

However, the dilemma that India would face in the coming days is how the Ukraine crisis unfolds. Its abstention from the UN Security Council clearly shows that it takes Russia’s side because of its defense imperatives. But the question is whether China’s abstention in the Council vote might not endear Beijing to Moscow, allowing it the much sought-after leverage against India through possible pressure on Russia to to slow down its defense aid to India. After all, New Delhi’s dilemma – should kyiv fall to Russian forces – would be the side it would end up taking.

Predicant for New Delhi

On the one hand, there are fears that the United States will impose CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act) (despite the fact that it seems to have understood the “compulsions of India”) for the continuation of its defense relationship with Russia and others face the possibility of a Kremlin “going cold” on it if perceived as ambivalent about a full Russian takeover of Ukraine. Furthermore, there would be a decisive US strategic shift from the Indo-Pacific region to Europe, leaving India’s backyard vulnerable to hostile Chinese moves. Indeed, it is this “ambivalence” that has not only created a difficult situation for New Delhi, even in its Myanmar policy.

Realpolitik, it is understood, is realpolitik and therefore Myanmar – whoever governs its polity – is understandably the crucial linchpin of India’s ‘Act East politics’. Even the much-publicized demolition of Indian insurgent camps in Myanmar saw a 180-degree turn, with many formations reaching a deal with the junta.

The optimism that marked the way the Myanmar military conducted Operation Sunrise-I and Operation Sunrise-II that demolished Indian insurgent camps in Myanmar appears to have evaporated after the military coup in Myanmar. . It is therefore high time for India. It must look back and recalibrate and realign its strategic objectives. Failure to understand such an imperative would spell the end of the “Neighborhood First” policy that she had grandly deployed on May 26, 2014 during Modi’s first swearing-in.

(Jaideep Saikia is a well-known conflict analyst and famous author of several best-selling books and Fellow, Irregular Warfare Initiative, West Point, USA)

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