Will India Align with US on Myanmar?

Anil Sigdel, 02/10/2021

The question that what policies India will pursue in the days ahead in response to Myanmar’s military coup will most likely add yet another point of contention in the US-India partnership  which has not been able to resolve the confusion on US’s potential Countering America’s  Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) sanctions on India’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missiles.

While the United States has rallied internationally to impose costs on the Myanmar’s Junta for its unacceptable move for its “direct assault” to democracy, India finds itself in an uneasy position.  India has been enjoying good relations with Myanmar’s army, the Tatmadaw, but this takeover is a matter of concern for India as it is likely to cause instability that will possibly come to bite it.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs’ statement understandably expressed its “deep concern” to the coup and its desire for the restoration of democracy, but shied away from condemning the move, reflecting India’s balanced approach to Myanmar, just like those of ASEAN or Japan. China is obviously softer which asked Myanmar to handle the situation “properly” to “maintain political and social stability.”

India’s major concerns or interests are the peaceful Rakhine state for Rohingyas settlement,  cross-border insurgent groups in India’s northeast, connectivity policies towards South East Asia, competition with China in Myanmar and Indo-Pacific strategy in the Bay of Bengal. Thus, India may continue giving lip service siding on democratic side , but clearly cannot afford to risk all these major areas of concerns.

Democracy: India faces this irony that while Pakistan’s army in its west is its arch-enemy, Myanmar’s army in its east is its friend, and India is not in position to bring in values and norms dimension to this relationship. A former Indian diplomat, including others,emphasized to not align with the US in terms of putting strong pressure on Myanmar. According to India’s ex-envoy to Myanmar, Gautam Mukhopadhay  India will have to accept the fact that there are alternative structures of power and India has those experiences in Myanmar in the past.

Rohingya Muslims: Modi’s India, with a new priorities for Hindus, has already taken some historic on its policies of openness and refugees matters. Leaving its  leadership role, India made clear in the last refugee crisis that Rohingya Muslims, those who fled Myanmar to India, are “illegal immigrants” and should be returned to Myanmar and prioritized development in Rakhine. With Daw Suu  on the global hot spot for her denial of Rohingya crisis, there were tensions in the India-Bangladesh-Myanmar ties. In fact, Bangladesh, who hosts the largest number of Rohingyas, and US have convergence in Rohingya problems.

Northeast insurgents:  Regardless of which force, democratic or military, rules Myanmar, India has no option but to maintain good terms with Myanmar, because the cooperation on that front is extremely important for India. And with Myanmar’s cooperation, India has had significant achievement in controlling insurgents’ activities there and to some extent vice versa. An India-China-Myanmar tri-junction lies in India’s Arunachal Pradesh, also claimed by China. India’s “act east policy” and  connectivity policies have made Myanmar crucial, and India has been investing substantially in building infrastructure in the region.

Defense: To balance Chinese inroads into Bangladesh’s and Myanmar’s defense, India has been supplying some defense equipment to Myanmar, and recently gifted a submarine to Myanmar.  India  rolled out red carpet  to General Min Aung Hliang in his 2017 visit to India.  Very recently, India has had a two-headed visit of its foreign secretary HV Shringla and army chief General  Naravane to Myanmar to cement ties. India sees opportunity to balance China given Myanmar’s independent thinking which  stops it from going too far in its defense ties with China unlike Pakistan.  India’s good partner Russia also is likely to step up its interests there.

Given all these factors, even before waiting to see how the move unfolds as how people of Mynamar would react, Indian commentaries sound very comfortable in prioritizing pragmatism over democratic values, which clearly goes against US position. India actually converges with China in prioritizing stability and resisting Western sanctions, as reflected in the UNSC statement. Ironically, while China has come to have better relations with Daw Suu , India has with the military. Now India’s concern is that might change if the military is put into pressure like before and it has no option but China.  However, the common views on Indo-Pacific architecture may lead the two nations to find some acceptable common solutions.

Dr. Anil Sigdel is the founder of Nepal Matters of America and the author of the new book “India in the era of China’s Belt and Road Initiative: How Modi Responds to Xi,” Rowman and Littlefield, Lexington Books, Washington DC.