Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh left yesterday on a three-day visit to Myanmar that underscores India’s quest for energy supplies and concerns about China’s strong influence in the Southeast Asian country.
Singh said he hoped to focus on stronger trade and investment links, development of border areas and improving connectivity between India and Myanmar.
India remains “committed to a close, cooperative and mutually beneficial partnership with the government and people of Myanmar,” Singh said in a statement before leaving for Yangon.
The visit highlights India’s search for energy supplies to fuel its economic boom and concerns about China’s influence in Myanmar, where the elected, but military-backed, government is opening up its economy for investment and trade.
In recent years, India has nervously watched Beijing’s domination of Myanmar’s oil and gas exploration projects. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers are in Myanmar working on infrastructure and other projects.
However, Indian officials are loath to acknowledge that India’s Myanmar policy is being driven by China’s inroads there.
India wants to “secure a stronger and mutually beneficial relationship with a neighboring country that is integral to India’s Look East policy,” Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai told reporters on Friday.
India has adopted a “Look East” policy of engaging with Southeast and East Asia, reaching out and deepening bilateral ties with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Indonesia among others in the region.
Singh’s visit will be the first in 25 years by an Indian prime minister, although the two countries share a 1,600km land border, as well as a maritime border in the Bay of Bengal.
Myanmar had been an international pariah for decades under a military junta that quashed any hopes of democratic reform. A 2010 election, though, has lead to at least some reforms and a gradual opening up to the rest of the world.
The competition between India and China in Myanmar is expected to surface again when Myanmar begins auctioning new natural gas blocks, both offshore and onshore, in which Indian companies are expected to participate actively.
“It would be in Myanmar’s interest to not put all its eggs in one basket,” said Rajiv Bhatia, a former Indian ambassador to Myanmar, referring to China’s overwhelming presence in Myanmar’s oil and gas exploration sector.
Mathai said that during Singh’s visit, the two countries are slated to start a bus link between Imphal, the capital of India’s Manipur state, and Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city.
India will also announce the creation of an information-training institute, an agricultural research center and a rice research park in Myanmar, Mathai said.
Over decades of isolation by the West, China reached out to Myanmar, building billions of dollars of roads and gas pipelines in the impoverished country.
New Delhi too has offered Myanmar aid and assistance, but not on the same scale as China.
In recent years, India has offered about US$800 million in credit to Myanmar to help develop infrastructure such as railways, roads and waterways. New Delhi also is helping build a port in the coastal Myanmar city of Sittwe. That port, Indian officials hope, will act as a trade gateway between India’s northeastern states and Southeast Asia.
Bilateral trade between India and Myanmar was about US$1.2 billion last year.