While India has been actively challenging China’s expansionist strategy on the border along the Line of Actual Control, it is also using its diplomatic strategy in the neighbourhood to counter China’s clout in the region.
Among India’s neighbours, Myanmar is seen as an important gateway to Southeast Asia. It is the only nation that shares its territorial boundary and its maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal with India.
It is also a part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that holds strategic importance to challenge China in the region.
To cement bilateral ties between the two countries, Indian Foreign secretary Harsh Shringla and the Indian Army chief General MM Naravane recently concluded a two-day visit to Myanmar.
During the visit, the foreign ministers of the two countries discussed the “possibility of joint production of Covid-19 vaccine, operationalisation of the Sittwe port in the early part of 2021 and conducting vocational training programmes for youth in Rakhine state”, Myanmar’s foreign ministry said in a Facebook post.
To boost defence and security cooperation between the two neighbours, both the sides agreed to not allow the use of their territories against the security interests of the other. This marks an important milestone as New Delhi has been worried about Beijing’s growing infrastructure investments in the region.
Beijing has committed to building a deep-water port in Kyaukphyu connecting China’s Yunnan Province by road and rail. India, US and Japan are kept on its toes as this could meet the same fate as the Sri Lankan port.
The Hambantota in Sri Lanka, built by China, was operating at a loss and couldn’t generate enough revenue to repay the $1.5 billion loan to Beijing and was eventually leased to China for 99 years in return for $1.1 billion.
Government and diplomatic sources have told Reuters that the United States, India and Japan have raised concerns that China might use the port as a naval base.
To further challenge China’s clout, New Delhi has gifted one of its diesel-electric submarines. The 3000 tonnes, Soviet-era submarine INS Sindhuvir was commissioned in the Myanmar Navy and renamed as UMS Min Ye Thein Kha Thu after being refurbished by state-run defence shipbuilder Hindustan Shipyard.
The announcement came after the two-day visit. “Cooperation in the maritime domain is a part of our diverse and enhanced engagement with Myanmar,” India’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said at a recent online media briefing.
“This is in accordance with our vision of SAGAR – Security and Growth for All in the Region, and also in line with our neighbouring countries. In this context, India will be delivering a kilo-class submarine, INS Sindhuvir, to the Myanmar Navy,” he added.
While China and Russia are the biggest arms supplier to Mynamar, New Delhi’s is stepping up its ante to woo the nation as its potential arms supplier.
“India’s decision to provide a submarine to Myanmar … seems to be a well-calculated strategy to counterbalance an assertive China,” Shamshad Ahmad Khan, a visiting associate fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute of Chinese Studies, told Nikkei Asia.
“By providing such a critical defence arsenal to Myanmar, India is clearly trying to augment the naval capability of its eastern neighbour to achieve a balance of power against China.”