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Myanmar: Dilemma of India and China

With the Myanmar military junta determined, if need be, to unleash another bloodbath reminiscent of that of 1988, in order to re-assert its control over the country and its people, Indian and Chinese policy-makers are facing a difficult dilemma.

2. Rightly or wrongly, the international community is convinced that only China and India, which have been following a policy of active engagement with the Junta, despite its ruthless suppression of its people, are in a position to moderate the behaviour of the Junta. But neither country is presently inclined to do so.

3. Their policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries is cited as the ostensible reason for their reluctance to exercise pressure on the Junta. A more important reason is their perception of the importance of Myanmar for their respective national security. Interest in Myanmar’s oil and gas reserves for meeting their growing energy requirements is one reason. For India, another reason is the likely benefits of Myanmar’s co-operation in dealing with the insurgencies in North-East India. An additional reason for China is Myanmar as a gateway to the Indian Ocean and as a potential energy route for reducing its dependence on the Malacca Strait for the movement of its energy supplies from West Asia and Africa. While pursuing their respective economic and security interests, the two countries have been keeping a wary eye on each other in order to see that one does not make a strategic headway at the expense of the other.

4. The Junta is hoping to take advantage of the perceived need of India and China for Myanmar to overcome the pressure from the international community for a change in its repressive policies. The developing situation in Myanmar poses a more difficult dilemma for China than India. If there is bloodshed and further instability in Myanmar, India’s economic and strategic hopes can be belied, but there is unlikely to be any damage to its international position.

5. However, if there is bloodshed in Myanmar, not only can China’s economic and strategic calculations go wrong, but its international position and its dreams of making a grand success of next year’s Beijing Olympics can receive a set-back. The benign riole which China has been trying to play in respect of North Korea’s military nuclear ambitions and its concern over the situation in Myanmar—palpable, but not yet overtly expressed— are a reflection of a China sensitive to the views and concerns of other countries—particularly the US— as it moves towards the Olympics.

6. China needs the co-operation of the US for making a success of the Olympics—whether it be in making a grand spectacle of it or in ensuring its security. Well-known Hollywood personalities are already helping the organisers of the Games for making a grand spectacle of them. American security advice is eagerly sought and accepted.

7. The Chinese policy-makers have a nagging fear that traditional anti-China elements in the West—particularly in the US— could politically sabotage the impact of next year’s Olympics as the US sabotaged the impact of the Moscow Olympics in 1980 by exploiting the intervention of the Soviet troops in Afghanistan.

8. One saw how promptly the Chinese policy-makers introduced correctives in their policy towards the Sudan, when American activists led by Mia Farrow started calling for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics if China did not change its policy on Darfur. There is an undercurrent of concern in the policy-making circles in Bejing that if the situation in Myanmar leads to a bloodbath,this could provide another handle to these activists to revive their campaign for a boycott of the Olympics under the pretext that it is the Chinese support, which has enabled the Myanmar junta to resist international pressure.

9. The Chinese policy-makers have not yet been able to find a way out of the dilemma. Myanmar has today one of the most ruthless Juntas of the world. It is conceivable that even a change in Chinese and Indian policies may not make it see reason in the short term. But the realisation that the entire international community—including India, China and the ASEAN— are now united in opposing the policies of the Junta could bring about a change in the medium and long term.

10. India and China should enter into mutual consultations as to how the two, working together and with the international community, could bring about an end of the repressive policies of the Junta. Given the kind of Junta Myanmar has, their initiative may fail, but that is not a valid argument for not trying.

(The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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