External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s just concluded visit to Myanmar to attend the annual meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has helped expose the NDA government to the challenges and opportunities in India’s east. Whether it is the urgency of rejuvenating ties with Myanmar, deepening ties with Southeast Asia or establishing contact with the foreign ministers of major powers with a stake in Asean, Swaraj’s sojourn has drawn the government into the wider landscape of India’s foreign policy. Although not always appreciated in Delhi, Myanmar is an important neighbour, which shares long land and maritime frontiers with India. Swaraj’s talks with the Myanmar leadership have lent much-needed depth to the foreign policy focus of the NDA government, concentrated so far on the subcontinent.
India has certainly stepped up its engagement with Myanmar in the last few years. Its efforts, however, have not been commensurate with the new opportunities in Myanmar, which has opened up to the world after prolonged isolation. Much remains to be done, especially in connecting India to Myanmar. Delhi has long acknowledged the fact that Myanmar is India’s bridge to Southeast Asia. In her remarks at the meeting with Asean foreign ministers, Swaraj emphasised the importance of connectivity “in all its dimensions, geographic, institutional, and people to people”. Asean leaders have heard this before, but would like to see India implement forthwith a variety of cross-border transport projects that are woefully behind schedule. More than two decades after the unveiling of its much celebrated Look East Policy, India has no direct air links with most Asean capitals. While India’s trade volumes in the region have grown over the years, Delhi remains a laggard in Asean’s efforts to craft a large free trade area in Asia. India has also been a hesitant partner on defence and security cooperation with Asean.
Swaraj has had the opportunity in Myanmar to witness at first hand the mounting tensions between China and some of its Southeast Asian neighbours in the South China Sea. Caught between rapidly growing economic interdependence with China and Beijing’s growing political and military assertiveness, Southeast Asia has been hoping for a more activist Indian role in shaping a more stable balance of power in the region. But there is no denying the widespread disappointment in Asean at Delhi’s passivity. One can only hope that Swaraj is convinced of the eastern imperative and will persuade the Modi government to respond vigorously.