By MR Josse
KATHMANDU: Despite reports of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China for a G-20 summit later this month and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s scheduled travel plans to India for a BRICS conclave in October, the bilateral relationship is hardly as smooth as silk.
That is evident today particularly along the eastern Himalayan segment of the disputed Sino-Indian frontier and in Myanmar.
A story in the Hindustan Times (22 August) by Rezaul H. Laskar quotes ‘China’, a PLA daily, claiming in a commentary that “Nervous India’s move to deploy BrahMos missiles in Arunachal” is a threat to China.
The commentary by Cheng Yuyi alleges it is beyond India’s “normal need for self-defence” and that “the deployment of the BrahMos is bound to increase competition and rivalry in the Sino-Indian relationship and negatively impact the region.”
Days later, a Reuters news story datelined Beijing noted that China’s defence ministry stated it hoped India could put more efforts into regional peace and stability rather than the opposite, in response to Indian plans to put advanced cruise missiles along the disputed border with China.
No less worthy of attention is Reuters not only pointing out that the BrahMos missile is produced by an Indo-Russian joint venture, but that “Modi’s government has ordered BrahMos Aerospace, which produces the missiles, to accelerate sales to a list of five countries topped by Vietnam.” Moreover, it informs that “Modi visits Vietnam, which is embroiled in a dispute over the South China Sea with Beijing, before arriving in China” for the G-20 summit.
The Indian media has, meanwhile, been conspicuously awash with reports of the one-day visit on 22 August of Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj to Nay Pyi Daw, including her meetings with Myanmar State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi to whom she conveyed Prime Minister Modi’s following message: “India is committed to strengthening your democratic institutions and socio-economic developments of your people.”
As a PTI report had it, Swaraj’s mission to Myanmar was the first high-level visit from India since the civilian government took over power in March.
Far more revealing than PTI’s bare-bones dispatch are commentaries by a clutch of analysts in the Hindustan Times. Jayant Jacob’s item on 23 August – entitled “Why India needs to cosy up to Myanmar” – recalled that “when India warmed up to the military junta in Myanmar, it was touted as a tactical decision” for, after all, the two countries share “a common boundary of 1,643 km, with India’s four northeastern states” and “China’s making heavy investments to spread its strategic footprint in Myanmar lent urgency” to such an endeavour.
Jacob’s lamented, “But, the Chinese made better sense of the winds of change blowing in Myanmar.” As evidence he noted not just that Swaraj’s Myanmar sortie followed on the heels of Suu Kyi’s ground-breaking five-day visit to China but came after that of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi who visited in April.
Another story in the same Indian daily, a day earlier, noted not merely that during her China odyssey Suu Kyi was given full state honours “like a Prime Minister” but also recalled that in June 2015 when she was an Opposition MP, “she was received by President Xi Jinping. This was an indication enough that China saw her as the future leader.” Incidentally, it mentioned that while Myanmar welcomes OBOR, Xi’s signature global initiative, “South Block has serious reservations.”
Likewise, another HT story – this one from Beijing by Suthirho Patranobis, quoted an article in the Global Times penned by Liu Zongyi, researcher at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, that bluntly claimed: “China is more important to Myanmar than India”.
Liu claimed that “Suu Kyi has chosen China for her first overseas trip outside ASEAN possibly not because she is emotionally close to China, but out of Myanmar’s politics and national interest…India, on the other hand, needed close ties with Myanmar to crush militancy along its northeastern border and to access the neighbour’s energy resources and the ASEAN region.”
“Suu Kyi’s latest formal visit…shows that China seems to be more significant than India in Myanmar’s diplomacy” and speculated that “India was thus worried that Myanmar could become China’s corridor to the Indian Ocean and could hence threaten India’s national security and its peculiar interest in those waters.”
Finally, a piece by Lalita Panicker merits mention, particularly her disclosure: “There is no denying that the Chinese have got a real head start in economic ties with Myanmar thanks to its money power and ability to conclude projects in time…India’s performance on the latter has been dismal e.g. the India-Myanmar-Thailand railway. The Thai segment has been completed and Myanmar is way ahead of India.”
Apart from references in the Chinese media to Suu Kyi’s landmark five-day visit to China recently, AP reported, ahead of her meeting with President Xi, that she told media representatives that she expects China to support historic peace talks with armed groups near the countries’ troubled joint border. In her words, “China, as a neighbour which shares a very important border along which there are many ethnic armed groups, is important in its goodwill.”
Reporting on the visit a day earlier, Reuters indicated that the Myanmarese visitor that she hoped her visit would “further consolidate and develop relations”. The two countries signed a deal to construct a strategic bridge near their border – as well as to build two hospitals in Myanmar’s two biggest cities, Yangon and Mandalay.
It was additionally reported that while Suu Kyi assured China of the solution of the stalled Myitsone dam issue between the two, the Chinese prime minister reaffirmed China’s support for efforts to bring peace in northern Myanmar.
In conclusion, two geo-strategic facts on the ground must be noted: one, that Sino-Indian rivalry is alive and well, and extends to Vietnam; the other, that, in Myanmar, China is clearly ahead of India in the competition for geopolitical heft.