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India – Myanmar – China Defense Relations; By Asma Masood

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

Image Courtesy: ICS

C3S Paper No. 0068/2016

Courtesy: Mizzima Weekly, Issue 20, Vol. 5, May 19 2016. 

Myanmar holds immense strategic significance for both India and China. China seeks to establish a stronger presence in the Indian Ocean Region and Myanmar offers a promising base. The land of the Golden Pagoda also offers a golden opportunity for China to militarily encircle India. Beijing is not concerned only about the Indian factor when consolidating its strategic interests in Myanmar. China fears the looming influence of U.S.A along its southern border. Defense cooperation will ensure China’s strategic influence in Southeast Asia, a region where U.S.A has a considerable strategic footprint. China’s concerns, especially in the South China Sea, are a major reason behind its military modernization. China will increase its defense budget by 10 percent or US$141.45 billion in 2015.

On the other hand, India is keenly building military ties with Nay Pyi Taw to contain Chinese influence as well to maintain steady relations with Myanmar. India’s earlier stance was that of isolating the erstwhile military regime. However India has been engaging militarily with Myanmar before its democratic transition began, as India declared that it had to do so or else lose out strategically in Myanmar altogether. Meanwhile India declared in 2015 a defense budget of US$40.4 billion.

India shares the concern of insurgency outfits operating out of the India-Myanmar border area. Delhi must also take care to safeguard its energy interests in Myanmar. Border management becomes an integral part of this aspect. The estimated 40 Northeast Indian–origin militant camps in Myanmar thrive due to the porous border between the countries, besides ethnic affinity. Despite insurgency activity reaching alarming levels, a recent successful case is of India’s hot pursuit of militants who killed 20 men of the 6 Dogra regiment in Chandel District of Manipur, India. Myanmar has denied speculation that the counter–insurgency attacks that killed 70 militants were carried out on the Myanmar side of the border. The Indian Army said that the strikes were carried out on the border, according to the agreement signed between the two countries in 2010.

It is observed that India’s defense relations with Myanmar are a reactive strategy. However China has been an active military collaborator with Myanmar, especially since 1988 when Myanmar’s military regime was hit by international sanctions. Today China supplies 28 percent of its arms exports to Myanmar and Bangladesh, a key indicator of how keen Beijing is to safeguard its southern borders. China feels it is surrounded by corridors of uncertainty, and thus needs to prop up a strong military in Myanmar. This will ensure the country remains stable despite its numerous problems.  This shows that China needs defense cooperation as an anchor in Myanmar, by making the small country feel secure.

Myanmar needs arms imports from China and India among other countries not only to deal with internal problems. Nay Pyi Taw has had a long standing maritime dispute with Bangladesh. It was resolved in 2012 by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea verdict which ruled in Bangladesh’s favour. However, Myanmar’s navy ranks last in importance in the army-dominated Tatmadaw. Hence China has been aiding Myanmar’s naval modernization to a considerable degree. This could impact India’s security. Thus, India has also been engaging with Myanmar’s navy.

The overall interaction between Indian and Myanmar’s navies marks the inclination of both sides to balance Chinese influence in the region.

Nay Pyi Taw is hence observed to play a pragmatic, “non–aligned” role by seeking military assistance from both big powers in the region. While it is early days to determine which side will emerge as the de facto superior military partner, it is clear that Myanmar is benefiting from the undivided attention from its large neighbours.

Myanmar gains strategically as it also has land border management issues with Bangladesh coupled with occasional skirmishes on the Myanmar–Thailand border.  In light of these military needs, China has sold Myanmar military equipment and has also trained a large number of Myanmar air and naval officers. The two countries also focus on combating illegal immigration, smuggling, cross–border crime, environmental damage and disaster relief.

It is observed by some scholars that that China sells aircraft and other heavy weaponry but not rifles, pistols, submachine guns and other light weapons, “to deflect criticism from the international community that the military junta is using Chinese weapons to suppress its people.” This is debatable, as there are conflicting reports of China supplying small arms to Myanmar.

On the other hand, India has supplied a wide range of military hardware to Myanmar over the years. These transfers were criticized especially as Myanmar was undergoing international sanctions. India defended its actions by arguing that most of the equipment is defensive in nature.

India also continues military relations with Myanmar in order to counter Chinese military influence. Some of India’s latest sales to Myanmar have included those from Goa Shipyard to the Myanmar navy. These sales indicate that India and Myanmar may be concerned about Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean. India has made a wise decision by biding its time on the Myanmar chessboard. Engaging with the junta despite criticism from the West, and maintaining good relations after Myanmar’s democratic transition, can mean that India may eventually find a niche in order to balance China’s strategic outreach.

Beijing’s has installed electrical monitoring devices, radar and signals intelligence facilities on Coco Islands lying north of Andaman Islands. This enables China to monitor the movement of naval and merchant ships in Bay of Bengal as well as missile tests off the coast of Orissa. There are also Chinese electronic surveillance facilities at the Alexandra Channel in the Andaman Sea. According to the Indian defence establishment, the Chinese intelligence system could also monitor the activities of the Indian Space Research Organisation at Sriharikota and the Defence Research and Development Organisation at Chandipur–on–Sea. India in 2014 cleared a longstanding Coast Guard proposal to set up a radar station on Narcondam Island in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, located opposite Coco Island. This enables Indian forces to survey ships passing through Indian waters. Thus Myanmar has become the matrix of a security dilemma between India and China.

More recent developments show the deepening of military cooperation between India and Myanmar. India has also offered the Myanmar armed forces special training packages. In addition, India plans to assist Myanmar in building offshore patrol vessels (OPVs).

This indicates that Delhi may be helping Nay Pyi Taw to counter its internal unrest. OPVs may be utilized for monitoring the Rohingya crisis while anti-insurgency training can be put in use while combating militant ethnic groups such as the Kachin. It is not clear whether Indian sold naval equipment is being used to monitor the Rohingya situation.

It is understandable that India desires stronger military bonds with Myanmar in order to counter China. However, if India concentrated on selling only heavy armaments to Myanmar, then this will be more in tune with India’s policy of supporting democracy in the country in transition.

China is not keeping silent while India expands military cooperation with Myanmar. Following India’s increased sales activity in 2013, President Xi Jinping emphasized the importance of the China–Myanmar connection. The following year saw a runway and other infrastructure being constructed on Coco Island, perhaps due to Chinese influence.

Another factor figures in the China–Myanmar security equation. China is witnessing the growth of a competitive international market in Myanmar. By engaging militarily with Nay Pyi Taw, China can ensure that some degree of influence is maintained. China had assisted Myanmar’s military modernization at a time when the world had shunned the sanction-hit country. Thus while the intensity of the two countries’ relationship has decreased to an extent over the last five years, it has in no way dimmed. Thus China’s political advantage keeps it militarily ahead of India in Myanmar. China is combining its economic policy of Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC) to gain access to the Indian Ocean. There is potential for Beijing to militarize its sponsored ports in Myanmar in the future.

Given China’s increased engagement, India needs to whip up a Myanmar strategy with regards to defense ties. Until then, the slow yet steady progress India is making in defense ties with Myanmar points in the right direction.

(Asma Masood is a Research Officer with the Chennai Centre for China Studies, India. She can be contacted at Twitter: @asmamasood11)

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