Our eastern neighbour


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BOTH to understand our interests and to chart a future policy toward our neighbours requires us to rethink what conventional wisdom defines as our region. The unquestioning adoption of ‘South Asia’ as our region over the decades has deprived us of a complete and balanced perspective of our immediate neighbourhood, leave alone the region immediately beyond, which might impact on our interests and future policy. For example, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan had a direct major adverse impact on our security, the after-effects of which continue to be felt more than a decade after the Soviet withdrawal and collapse.

The term ‘South Asia’ seems to have appeared in the late 1950s, linked to the emergence of US-sponsored western military alliances that divided Asia into Southeast and West Asia (later modified in the late 1970s to also superimpose Southwest Asia). The Washington-centred worldview imagined a world where the Indian subcontinent simply disappeared at the edges of peripheral vision. The term South Asia was convenient from their perspective. But what we failed to grasp was the damage this simple definition of the region has done to our neighbours and us.

Look for example at the sheer geographical nonsense where South Asia so defined does not include three of our very important physical neighbours: China, Afghanistan and Myanmar! Our borders (a significant part of which are disputed) cover nearly 7,000 km out of the total of 16,000 km of our land frontiers. Over 94,000 sq km of Northeast India is claimed by (not to mention another 60,000 sq km in Northwest India occupied by) China that is not considered to be a South Asian country. Geographically, Srinagar is north of Lhasa. The chain of Andamans islands is closer to Indonesia and Thailand than the Indian mainland.

There is a more serious problem created by this definition. The Indian subcontinent has a common civilisational history, heritage and integrity associated with India because of its being the largest inheritor of that civilisation. But the subcontinent now has a number of sovereign states of which, at least, Pakistan tries to define its heritage more in terms of religion rather than civilisation.

Emphasising South Asia as a region only underlines a value threat from Indian civilisation with a tradition of assimilation and absorption. At the same time, the tremendous asymmetry between India and its South Asian neighbours – in size, population, economy, and so on – creates a distorted picture. None of the South Asian countries are neighbours to each other while each of them is contiguous to India. More often than not, India is seen only in relation to the second-largest South Asian country, Pakistan. Perceptions get further distorted because Indian concerns and interests do not receive adequate notice, especially since many of them relate to immediate neighbours who are not seen as part of ‘South Asia’.



One consequence of this perception has been a tendency by Indians to pay far less attention to China and Myanmar than necessary. Myanmar went into self-imposed isolation for a number of decades. In recent times, Myanmar has been associated with Aung San Suu Kyi, admired for her struggle for democracy. But the government in Rangoon (now called Yangon) had progressively failed to ensure even the minimum semblance of governance. The military takeover in 1988 reversed the process of lawlessness and put Myanmar on the road to recovery.

Many of the ethnic and separatist movements, which had prospered in the region outside the Irrawady valley, were brought into a framework of reconciliation and submission. But, unlike the earlier period, the international community now sought to isolate Myanmar because of the military rule, and the regime sought engagement with the external world while it grappled with the problems within.

For the first four years, at least, India was highly critical of the new regime. China on the other hand moved rapidly to support the new regime with aid, assistance and weapons. Southeast Asia, especially the ASEAN, soon realised the importance of engaging the government in Yangon and admitted Myanmar into the expanded ASEAN in the face of objections from the United States and some of its allies. It was also clear by 1992 that the regime was stable and that the pro democracy movement, limited primarily to student groups in Yangon, would not be able to force a change.



With a regime that was able to exercise control over the border regions of Myanmar, the picture for India started to change. For decades India had faced the problem of separatist insurgency movements finding sanctuary across the border in Myanmar. The Burmese Communist Party, backed by Communist China, had supported Naga insurgency for nearly two decades since the mid 1950s. The government in Yangon indicated its willingness to cooperate with India in controlling separatist activity across the border. This set the framework for expanding cooperation between India and Burma since the early 1990s. There are a number of issues of strategic significance that guide common interests in this regard.

India is bracketed by two of the world’s three largest narcotics producing-exporting regions. There are indications that the narcotics traffic, from what is euphemistically referred to as the ‘Golden Triangle’ encompassing Myanmar-Thailand-Laos, constitutes the major source of illicit heroin and opium, although it has shown decline in recent years. Willy-nilly India became a passage country (directly and via Nepal) and some, if not most, of the crime and violence in our Northeastern region is linked to this factor.

Historically, the British introduced opium into Burma in the late 19th century to increase supplies for its trade with China. The American CIA encouraged the production of opium in this region to finance its KMT allies in China and ethnic groups in Myanmar.1 There were accusations of official involvement in the drug trade. But Myanmar has taken serious and significant measures to control the menace with noticeable success even beyond the liquidation of the activities of the notorious drug baron, Khun Sa. The area under opium cultivation in Myanmar came down from 161,012 hectares in 1991 to 130,300 hectares in 1998 although this itself represents nearly 90% of the production of opium in Southeast Asia.2 But a great deal remains to be accomplished. Our interests require increased cooperation with Myanmar to ensure that the drug menace is controlled and eliminated.



As long as Myanmar was isolated from the external world there were few incentives for India to seek a closer relationship, especially since the earlier regimes had not been positively inclined. But its progressive opening up after 1989 has provided opportunities that go beyond the problem of narcotics. The expansion of Chinese influence in Myanmar is an obvious factor. China has supplied weapons for the re-equipment and expansion of the Myanmar military since 1989; it has also been deeply involved in economic and trade cooperation. It has provided assistance in building and strengthening infrastructure in the country. However, what attracted most attention in India was the upgradation of ports, especially at Hyanggi and the communications facilities at Coco Island in the Bay of Bengal, a mere 45 kilometres from Indian territory. While Myanmar has tried to reassure India that these are not targeted against India and are for non-military purposes without any obligation to China despite Chinese presence there, concerns about the future implications for security persist. When seen in the context of larger China-Myanmar relations, with Myanmar’s increasing dependency on China in economic terms as well as for weapons, these developments require careful consideration.



China’s economic and trade relations have allowed its influence to grow significantly during the past decade. The Chinese see Myanmar as a route for Southwest China to the ocean and the world beyond for trade and economic relations. The distance to a port from Kunming or Chengdu, for example, is much shorter through Myanmar than through the overland route in China. Many in India have expressed concerns about the growing dependence of Myanmar on China. Though at present, there is little reason to doubt the Chinese who claim that their intentions are commercial and not political in nature, the long term strategic implications cannot be ignored. Armies have marched across from India into China on the Burma Road; theoretically they could also march southward. For the present though, plans to revamp the old Burma Road seem to have been shelved. But such an eventuality would remove a major limitation on China in its deployment of forces that exist along the Himalayan frontier in any possible military confrontation with India.

Others in India have expressed concern about the Chinese Navy’s future presence in the Indian Ocean and the port expansions have to be seen in this context. It is difficult to identify any serious military or political purpose that would be achieved by such a measure by China that would threaten Indian interests. However, the key factor of a growing Chinese influence to our east deserves attention, especially since China has established a strategic alliance with Pakistan on the other side.



The very fact that Myanmar is an important neighbour with a 1,700 km long and difficult (for both) land border, and for other reasons, requires that we develop a closer relationship. This process has been underway in recent years. In fact cooperation between the security forces of both countries for better border management is now a well-established fact. Trade too has begun to grow although it is handicapped by vested interests in cross-border smuggling that has been especially lucrative because of the drug traffic. Though high level visits have taken place, political level visits have lagged.

It is extremely important for us to remain deeply engaged with countries to our east. The key for building such cooperative engagement is through economic and trade relations. This assumes greater importance in the context of a critical need for developing our Northeast region. Bangladesh and Myanmar are among the least developed countries, and their development must be seen as an important national strategic interest for us. Otherwise migration from Bangladesh and smuggling (including of narcotics and weapons) from Myanmar will continue with long term negative implications for our development and security.

In the mid 1980s, Chinese scholars had argued for exploiting the potential of a China-Myanmar-Northeast India ‘growth triangle’. More recently, a major international conference held in Kunming re-emphasised this. We, of course, cannot accept the formulation in its present form. The growth triangle will have to be between the countries concerned, even though in reality the operative results would focus on the nearest regions. Regional cooperation under various organisations such as the ASEAN (of which India is a dialogue partner), ARF and IORARC would further reinforce bilateral cooperation. The setting up of BIMSTEC (Bangladesh-India-Myanmar-Sri Lanka-Thailand Economic Cooperation organisation) has already signalled such an approach and India’s intention and plans to build multilateral regional cooperation. Oil and gas reserves in Myanmar and the new discoveries of natural gas in Bangladesh promise to dramatically alter regional economic cooperation opportunities in the coming years.



India is deficient in energy. Its import dependency on crude oil has increased from around 30% in the mid 1990s to reach an expected figure of over 90% during the coming decade. Industrial growth requires an energy demand increase of nearly 6% per year for the next two decades. India offers a huge market not only for energy imports from Bangladesh and Myanmar, but also for manufactured goods from these countries. India would need to invest in setting up industry in these countries. Trade and transit through Bangladesh would significantly enhance such economic relations to the mutual benefit of the countries involved. One hopes that those in Bangladesh opposed to the concept would see the benefit, rather than continue in the self-defeating anti-India mould.