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Fifth Tone | Developments in the Land of Jade & the Geopolitical Calculus ; C3S Interview with

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C3S Interview:001/2021

(Mr. Pratap Heblikar retired as Special Secretary, Government of India in September 2010 after over 38 years of service. He is currently Managing Trustee, Institute of Contemporary Studies Bangalore. He is a Director at Maxgrid Securicor India Private Limited, a Bangalore-based private security consultancy company. Besides he is associated with several corporate entities and others in an advisory capacity and also on cybersecurity-related matters. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of the Asian Dialogue Society (ADS) in Singapore.  He was decorated for Meritorious Service and Distinguished Service by the Government of India besides commendations. He writes regularly on national security-related issues for several defence journals and magazines.)

Introduction:

China has demonstrated an increasing profile in South Asia given its geo-economic, geopolitical and security profile across the region. China initiated the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which includes the Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR).

Some of the key projects in the same are China Pakistan Occupied Kashmir Economic Corridor (CPoKEC) and the China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). China also has an extensive deep pocket presence in South Asian countries including, economic investments and defence & security cooperation across Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Nepal.

As India’s gateway to Southeast Asia, Myanmar weighs high on New Delhi’s strategic calculus- especially following the military coup on Feb 01, 2021, its return to military rule has forced mandarins in New Delhi back to the drawing board.

On one hand, India has invested heavily in Myanmar, due to which it cannot afford to directly antagonise the junta, as to not endanger or ceding the strategic space completely to China. At the same time, given its democratic credentials, India is in a position of rethinking in giving its unequivocal backing to military rule.

Now, with Myanmar under military rule, it will be more difficult at least for the foreseeable future for New Delhi to maintain a healthy military-to-military relationship with Nay Pyi Taw, as this may pose international reactions.

The US President Joe Biden has initiated steps to impose sanctions on Myanmar, which would have a spillover effect on Japanese investments which complement India’s projects. The global response to the coup will also have an impact on India’s interests in Myanmar. To deal with such eventualities India’s strategic options should now appear firmer than ever.

The following are the issues Mr. Pratap Heblikar, Former Special Secretary, Government of India & Managing Trustee, Institute of Contemporary Studies Bangalore (ICSB) has addressed in this interview:

  1. Myanmar’s democratic transition had been a work in progress since its experiment with a hybrid model of democracy in 2011. In this scenario, please explain what has led to the coup in Myanmar?

  2. Since the 1990s, China was possibly the only country supporting Myanmar through its international isolation until 2011. So, Myanmar needed Beijing to shield it at the United Nations Security Council and defy international sanctions. However, this proved to be a double-edged sword as the military became deeply mistrustful of overdependence on Beijing. Did this actually prompt democratic reforms in 2011?

  3. China is now in a unique position with the coup. It says its general policy is that it doesn’t interfere in internal matters of the country. This approach has allowed it to work with dictators and democracies alike. How do you look at this development?

  4. In a joint visit to Naypyidaw in October 2020, Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla and Army Chief General Naravane met with both State Counsellor Suu Kyi and General Min Aung Hlaing, making it clear that New Delhi saw both relationships at par. This coup in Myanmar presents a complex mosaic of challenges for India. On one hand, India, which has invested heavily in Myanmar, can’t afford to directly antagonise the junta, as to not endanger or lose the strategic space completely to China. Can you please elaborate more on this?

  5. Apart from strategic concerns, India has cultivated several infrastructure and development projects with Myanmar, which it sees as the “gateway to the East” and ASEAN countries. Given India’s Northeast is inadequately connected and hampered by lack of industrial base and India’s connectivity projects the Trilateral Highway and the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project will get influenced by the recent events in Myanmar?

  6. What is the socio-politico-strategic impact of China’s SEZ in Kyaukphyu and the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor on India? Why India not been able to derive such strategic dividends in Myanmar?

  7. In July 2020, Myanmar army chief General Min Aung Hlaing accused China of arming the Arakan Army and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army rebels, whom Myanmar calls “terrorist organisations” that are active in the Rakhine State in western Myanmar bordering China. How do you view such developments taking into account Myanmar’s equations with China?

  8. Can you please elaborate on the non-traditional security threats emanating from the Golden Triangle, the threat of increased proliferation of drugs and small arms in the region including India’s Northeast and its bearing on India’s internal security portfolio?

  9. We now see a classic realist calculus at play, and due to the Myanmar military’s wariness of Beijing as well as New Delhi’s close strategic partnership with the United States, how should India be to deal with the unfolding eventualities?

  10. Is there any reliable information on whether China plans to use the Coco Islands of Myanmar for intelligence-gathering purposes?

(Interview conducted by Balasubramanian C, Research Officer, C3S. The views expressed are interviewee’s own and does not reflect the views of C3S.)

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