Reaching out to Myanmar as it tries to end 50 years of isolation and reduce dependence on ally China,Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrived this evening in capital Naypyidaw. He will be holding key talks tomorrow with President U Thein Sein who,as the head of a quasi-civilian government,has stunned the world with his rapid moves to open up the country.
Before leaving New Delhi,the Prime Minister,in a statement,said: India welcomes Myanmars transition to democratic governance and the steps taken by the Government of Myanmar towards a more broad-based and inclusive reconciliation process. We stand ready to share our democratic experiences with Myanmar… We will also consider new initiatives and define a roadmap for further development of our cooperation.
He said the focus of his visit would be on stronger trade and investment links,development of border areas,improving connectivity between our two countries and building capacity and human resource,and added that he hoped to sign a number of agreements and MoUs to strengthen bilateral cooperation.
On Tuesday,Singh will travel to Yangon,some 300 km south,where he is scheduled to meet Aung San Suu Kyi,for long the face of Myanmars struggle for democracy and now a member of the countrys lower house. Before he returns home,the Prime Minister will also attend an Indian community reception and address a meeting of think tanks and business heads.
He is the first Indian Prime Minister to travel to Myanmar in a quarter century the last visit was by Rajiv Gandhi in 1987. His visit comes at a time when sanctions are being lifted and world leaders and business teams are scrambling for a share in the resource-rich country.
Years of military rule and isolation pushed Myanmar into the arms of neighbour China which,in return for diplomatic and military support,picked up its reserves of oil,gas and timber to fuel growth at home.
In January,Yangon-based The Myanmar Times,citing Myanmar Investment Commission data,reported that China invested $13.6 billion in Myanmar,largely in the energy sector,during 2010-11. Of this,$9.6 billion was invested in 2011. An official was quoted as saying that six official Chinese delegations visited MIC in 2011 to discuss investment in infrastructure,mining,energy and manufacturing.
China has started work on twin oil and natural gas pipelines,stretching 1,060 km from the Bay of Bengal port of Kyaukpyu in the Rakhine State to Kunming,capital of its southwestern province Yunnan. Kyaukpyu sits on a harbour used for rice trade between Kolkata and Yangon. Once complete,these pipelines will allow China to bring home fuel supplies from the Middle East and Africa without taking the long route via the Strait of Malacca. It saves time and makes strategic sense as a precaution for any future conflict that could shut the strait.
Other than shipping oil and gas overland to Yunnan,China also plans to meet its power needs from the Irrawaddy in Myanmar. China Power Investment Corporation and Myanmar conglomerate Asia World have been building what will eventually be one of the worlds largest hydroelectric power stations.
However,work on the Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy was stopped by President Thein Sein last September,a move that both surprised and angered Beijing. Weeks later,General Min Aung Hlaing broke from tradition by heading to Vietnam,and not China,for his first trip abroad as Myanmars new military chief. Vietnam and China are locked in a war of words over rights to the South China Sea and the choice of the first port of call was not lost on anyone.
A former Indian diplomat believes these moves by President Sein signal that Myanmar is ready to do business with others and not be over-dependent on China.
Another former diplomat,who served in Myanmar,underlined that China was not going to vacate space and let India rush in. He said New Delhi must take a more pragmatic approach and try not to be an alternative to China. The issue is one of economics,one that asks the question: What is it that India can do for Myanmar? he said.
In a country with proven reserves of oil and natural gas,where infrastructure building is up for grabs and people are waiting for mobile phone and internet connectivity,the delegation of CEOs visiting Myanmar with the Prime Minister will be a keen observer of how the relationship unfolds.