So far India’s Look East Policy (henceforth LEP) is fairly successful in generating much excitement, hitherto unimaginable expectations, dreams for sudden economic growth and highly improved connectivity between India’s remote North East corner with the outside world. Uncritical of the sweet sounding policy, many see LEP as a launchpad for the region’s economic growth. In short, many view LEP as stairway to a bright new world. This picture (of LEP) is what is projected by its protagonists (sic. Government of India) and visible to casual observers. Indeed LEP holds a lot of promises for India taken as a whole. It was conceptualised in the early 1990’s when the Indian economy, then in serious crisis of debt, was forced to open to foreign capital and investment particularly to the thriving economies of South East Asia. This strategic move successfully vouched the ailing Indian economy. But a critical study of the policy with special focus on the region in general and Manipur in particular reveals myriad implications and ramifications, which may prove suffocating, contrary to all the expectations. For the North East region, if not for the whole country, LEP is not all about economic liberalisation or better connectivity with the outside world. It comes with a heavy baggage of military doctrines. Apart from its stated objectives of coupling the Indian economy with the thriving economies of South East Asia, LEP has been transformed as an effective instrument for engaging Myanmar, perhaps the most isolated country on earth till the last couple of years and thus, counter China’s growing influence in South East Asia.
Sino-Indian rivalry and Myanmar
The rivalry between India and China, befittingly called Asian giants on account of their huge populations, territories and fast growing economies, is rooted in their diverse geopolitics and intersecting economic interests. This has created a seemingly irreconcilable dichotomy between the two powers even though their geographical expansion patterns throughout history have rarely overlapped or interacted with each other. The two countries fought a limited war in 1962. Before that, they have little long-standing historical or ethnic animosity.
Buddhism spread in varying forms from India, via Sri Lanka and Myanmar, to Yunnan in southern China in the third century B.C., but this kind of profound cultural interaction was more of an exception than the rule. Moreover, the dispute over the demarcation of their common frontier in the Himalayan foothills, from Kashmir in the West to Arunachal Pradesh in the East is ostensibly a source of serious tension in its own right. The simmering tension was there since the colonial era but it is not the primary cause of the new rivalry. The principal factor for the new rivalry is the disappearance of distance as a result of advancement in military technology.
In April 25, 2012, the Global Affairs observed:
Indeed, the theoretical arc of operations of Chinese fighter jets at Tibetan airfields includes India. Indian space satellites are able to do surveillance on China. In addition, India is able to send warships into the South China Sea, even as China helps develop state-of-the-art ports in the Indian Ocean. And so, India and China are eyeing each other warily. The whole map of Asia now spreads out in front of defense planners in New Delhi and Beijing, as it becomes apparent that the two nations with the largest populations in the world (even as both are undergoing rapid military buildups) are encroaching upon each other’s spheres of influence – spheres of influence that exist in concrete terms today in a way they did not in an earlier era of technology. And this is to say nothing of China’s expanding economic reach, which projects Chinese influence throughout the Indian Ocean world, as evinced by Beijing’s port-enhancement projects in Kenya, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar. This, too, makes India nervous.
Despite significant improvement in bilateral relations, geopolitical rivalry for influence and domination is intensifying between the two Asian giants in the post-Cold War era. Nowhere is this contest for regional hegemony between China and India more evident than in Myanmar, which occupies a critical strategic position between the two countries. China’s inroads into Myanmar since 1990, specially the build-up of naval facilities in the Bay of Bengal and its possible use by the Chinese military, are, from New Delhi’s perspective, serious encroachments into India’s sphere of influence. Indian strategists now see China as a threat in the East as well as in the North. The growing military nexus between China and Myanmar has prompted the Indian Government to reassess its policy towards Yangon and to emphasise the complementarily of interests between India and the United States, India and ASEAN, and India and Japan in containing China’s growing economic and military influence in the Asia-Pacific.
India’s determination to develop a degree of regional dominance comparable with China is another factor fuelling the rivalry. The underlying power rivalry between the two Asian giants and their self-assumed image as natural great powers and centres of civilization and culture, continue to drive them support different countries and causes. China is striving to emerge as an independent power centre in the evolving multi-polar world. On its part, India is equally anxious to assert its power and expand its sphere of influence in order to counteract similar moves by other regional powers, particularly China. Both countries remain suspicious of each other’s long term agenda and intentions, and both see themselves as emerging great Asian powers whose time has finally come.
Since independence in 1948, successive governments in Myanmar have battled with half a dozen insurgencies and separatist movements based on ethnic identity around the country’s periphery. Not surprisingly, then, the sole pre-occupation of the Myanmar armed forces, the tatmadaw, has been the maintenance of the country’s territorial integrity from threats within rather than without. Isolationist policies pursued by the Ne Win regime had helped perpetuate Myanmar’s status as a buffer state between India and China. But this is not the case anymore. Since September 1988, when the military brutally suppressed pro-democracy protests and killed thousands of people, the country was run by the military’s State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) until general election was held in 2010. But the SLORC regime had effectively put an end to Myanmar’s neutrality by moving closer to China. China is reported to have so far supplied more than US$ 1.5 billion worth of arms to Myanmar including fighter aircrafts, patrol boats, heavy artillery, tanks, anti-aircraft missiles and guns. Most of the Chinese weaponry (including Chinese-made HN5 anti-aircraft missiles) are now reportedly deployed on the Indo-Myanmar border, with the number of battalions on Myanmar’s border with India and Bangladesh going up from five in 1988 to 31 in 1992. These insights are given by defence analysts such as P Stobdan, and Bertil Lintner.
India, on the other side is not sitting idle. India started engaging Myanmar rigorously since the past two decades. In fact, Myanmar is projected as a crucial partner of India’s LEP. Projects executed by Indian companies in recent years cover a variety of sectors such as roads, railways, telecommunication, automotive, energy and remote sensing. Construction and upgrading of Tamu-Kalemyo-Kalewa road has been completed. RITES have been assisting Myanmar in improving its railway transport system. ISRO set up and subsequently upgraded a data processing centre for remote sensing applications. Tatas have set up a turbo-truck assembly plant with assistance from a line of credit by the Indian government. Earlier, a project for high-speed link in 32 Myanmar cities was completed by the telecommunication company, TCIL. Three leading companies – OVL, GAIL and Essar – have been active in the energy sector. Another company has recently won an onshore oil block. Further, the Trilateral Highway project, with the objective to link Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand through Myanmar, has been under discussion/investigation for quite some time. These are some un-mistakable testimonies of Myanmar’s strategic importance to China and India.
Strategic location of Manipur
Manipur and the entire North East region occupy an even more crucial position from the strategic and military point of view of India. Strategic importance of Manipur in the eyes of geopolitical powers can be gleaned from the all-out war fought between British forces and Japanese army for control of Manipur during World War-II. The faith of the Japanese position in the South-East Asia was so much dependent on the outcome of battle at Imphal and it was reflected with no ambiguity in the Special Order of the Day issued by General Mutaguchi:
This operation will engage the attention of the whole world and is eagerly awaited by 100,000,000 of our countrymen. By its very decisive nature, its success will have a profound effect upon the course of the war and may even lead to its conclusion. Our mission is thus of the greatest importance and we must expend every energy and talent in the achievement of our goal ( quoted in Evans, Geoffrey and Antony Brett-James 1962. Imphal, a flower on lofty heights. London: Macmillan).
In fact, the decisive battles of Imphal and Kohima during World War II have been voted the greatest battles fought in the history of the British Army in a contest organised by the National Army Museum in England in April 2013. Given these facts, one can safely conclude that Manipur was given maximum geo-strategic importance by the imperial powers. But strategic significance of Manipur’s location often turned out to be bane for her people rather than a boon. It was this geo-strategic significance which made Imphal one of the most heavily bombed town in the entire South and South East Asia during the war. Again, geo-strategic importance is one primary factor for making Manipur one of the most militarised State in India today.
Although LEP is sugar-coated and often presented as an entirely economic policy of liberalisation and commercial engagement with South East Asian countries, it also carries a heavy baggage of military incendiaries as far as Manipur and the North East region are concerned. India’s LEP vis-a-vis Myanmar is a two-pronged strategy. One is aimed at checking China’s growing influence over the neighbouring country and other is to tap the rich natural resources of Myanmar for Indian industries. India’s engagement with Myanmar and beyond through its LEP has so far only accelerated militarization of Manipur all in the name of securing highways, railway (currently under construction), providing security cover to construction workers, infrastructure projects, trade facilities et al. Government of India has been trying to vindicate this policy of militarization by pointing its one hand to the presence of armed opposition groups demanding restoration of the ancient kingdom’s sovereignty, and the other hand dangling an imaginary trophy of economic prosperity that would be purportedly won by its LEP.
This article was published in The Sangai Express on Sunday, January 5, 2014.