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A new Eastern axis

Japan, Thailand, India joining forces in Myanmar could challenge China’s dominance.

Updated: March 18, 2014 9:28 am
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Myanmar’s democratisation is leading to its opening up and growing importance for existing and newer regional powers. Recent Japanese assertiveness in the country also sends a clear signal against China’s growing influence there. Setting aside the tension spilling over from World War II, both countries share the common ground of wanting to maintain a safe distance from China, which is why Japan-Myanmar relations are at an all-time high.

Japan’s assistance in helping build up Myanmar has deepened the partnership. Significantly, Japan has appointed a special envoy for national reconciliation in Myanmar to facilitate dialogue between the government there and ethnic minorities. Japan’s support to ethnic groups by supplying them with essential food commodities and medical stocks is commendable.

Japan’s geopolitical ambitions and expanding economic footprint pose a serious challenge to the traditional regional powers in Myanmar. It has offered economic aid to support the development of the country’s infrastructure in the hopes of improving the investment climate there. Its total investment up to 2013 stands at $ 292 million, which is nowhere close to China’s $ 14 billion. Nevertheless, its engagement strategy attempts to counter China’s influence in Southeast Asia.

Myanmar will use Japanese official development assistance loans to the tune of $ 610 million for the implementation of four projects — upgrading the Yangon-Mandalay railroad and Yangon’s water supply, and developing the Thilawa port and irrigation facilities in the western Bago region. Moreover, Japan has been providing assistance for the development of Myanmar’s communication and postal services as well as offering to train Myanmar police by conducting technical courses. The Japanese government is also involved in grassroots human security projects in Bago and Taninthayi regions as well as in Kachin state.

The visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Myanmar in May 2013 — a first since 1977 — was noteworthy. This was followed by the cancellation of $ 3.7 billion of debt. Japan has further pledged to develop a special economic zone in Thilawa, which is expected to promote industrial development and create employment opportunities. Japan has also shown willingness to help in developing the Dawei port along with Thailand. There has also been a request for help to promote vocational training and agronomy education in Myanmar. Further, Japanese companies also participated in the Japan festival held recently in Yangon. But they must make responsible investments and be careful not to follow China’s example of partnering with former junta cronies.

So far as India is concerned, it’s stepping up its development cooperation with Myanmar, in light of the latter’s continuing reform process and their historical and cultural ties. India is trying to leverage its “soft” power and foster deeper economic and business links with Myanmar. Compared to China’s mostly commercial involvement in the country, India and Japan have focused on infrastructure development, capacity building and humanitarian assistance. This is in line with Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s vision. According to her, “when you help either in the form of development programmes or humanitarian programmes, I want the people involved to gain skills so that they earn and they learn”.

India has been particularly instrumental in setting up centres for industrial training and enhancement of IT skills, and other such capacity-building programmes. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Myanmar earlier this month, the second in the last two years, is evidence of the countries’ closer ties. India’s mega project to develop the Sittwe port along the same lines as Japan’s Thilawa and Thailand’s Dawei projects must also be acknowledged. The project envisages enhancing connectivity between India and Myanmar, which will lead to the development of trade between the two countries. It will also contribute to the economic development of Mizoram and other Northeastern states. The ambitious trilateral highway linking India, Myanmar and Thailand, likely to be completed by 2016, adds another dimension to the emerging security architecture in the region.

It is significant to observe that this growing alliance has deeper consequences for the region as well. The coming together of Japan and Thailand in Myanmar, and now India’s invitation to Japan to invest in and build overland infrastructure in the Northeast, is going to outplay Chinese dominance in the region. Furthermore, Japanese development of the Chennai port and plans to link it with Dawei are indications of Japan, India and Thailand coming together and forming an axis in a bid to confront China in Myanmar. India’s growing closeness to Japan and recent maritime security exchanges have been viewed as a strategic attempt to challenge Chinese dominance and gain an advantage, which is going to redefine the security architecture of the region.

The writer teaches political science at Zakir Husain College, University of Delhi

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