By Francis WadeCHIANG MAI - This year marks two decades since India's P V Narasimha Rao administration first urged policymakers and businessmen to "Look East" towards the goldmine of resources and investment potential in emerging Southeast Asia.
Nowhere has that policy shift been more profoundly felt than in Myanmar, where New Delhi had previously supported the Aung San Suu Kyi-led democratic opposition but is now entrenched in the military's camp.
While aspirations of emerging as a political and economic powerhouse were long held in New Delhi, it only became apparent in the early 1990s that the mix of market economics and access
to cheap resources could propel peripheral countries outside of the Western hemisphere to prosperity.
Tied to this was a realization that stronger relations with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) would allow India to leverage into the foreign investment and thriving open markets that had fueled fast growth there without putting all its economic eggs in the United States' basket.
The "Look East" policy gained full expression last year when Myanmar's junta chief General Than Shwe made a high-profile visit to India. Although elections last November allowed the hermetic 77-year-old dictator to drift into the shadows of the Myanmar's emerging new political landscape, his efforts to play competing big nations off against one another, including most notably China and India, is expected to guide new president Thein Sein's foreign policy.
In this regard, Rao's legacy is still relevant. As minister of external affairs prior to assuming the premiership in 1991, Rao had watched as China aggressively co-opted many of the strategic states near its borders, including Myanmar. In response, Rao as premier oversaw a policy that simultaneously aimed to counterbalance China's rising influence and secure access to resources, including oil and gas, that would foster the country's transition to a market-driven economy.
While Rao's courting of Myanmar's military generals after years of Indian support for the democratic opposition was viewed among many in New Delhi's political elite as a pragmatic step forward, it sparked outrage among those who had taken pride in India's post-independence status as something of a moral anomaly in a region where governments place a premium on political sovereignty and economic self-interest, often at the expense of neighboring countries.
Prior to Rao coming to office, India's overt support for Myanmar's pro-democracy opposition was clearly out of step with the so-called "Asian way" of non-interference in other countries domestic affairs and more in line with the Western values of human rights and democracy promoted as policy by the US and European countries. At the time, many Asian leaders found the West's emphasis on such values as pernicious, out of place and a potential destabilizing impediment to much-needed economic growth.
While siding with the West had put India on an ostensibly higher moral ground, touted in its claim to be the world's largest democracy, there was a feeling in New Delhi at the time that it was a somewhat archaic position, particularly as emerging economies to the east that embraced the "Asian way" sped forth to prosperity.
In 1993, the same year that China's and Singapore's leaders at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna told the Bill Clinton administration to think twice about placing progress on human rights as a top foreign policy goal, India made a distinct policy u-turn and the "Look East" policy began to take shape.
The Rao administration began to make its first overtures to Myanmar's rights-abusing military regime in March 1993 when then foreign secretary J N Dixit traveled to Yangon to meet with the junta's prime minister Khin Nyunt.
While opposition leader Suu Kyi received that same year India's prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru award, her supporters were concerned by signs of strengthening bilateral ties with the regime that five years earlier had opened fire on and killed thousands of pro-democracy protestors. (Jawaharlal Nehru and Myanmar's first civilian leader, U Nu, had forged a close relationship as a result of shared grievances over their former colonizer)
Oil and arms
Fast-forward to the present and India has become the fourth-largest investor in Myanmar and one of only eight countries known to regularly supply its army with lethal weaponry.
Yet anger about the policy shift continues to boil among activists, many of whom gathered last month in New Delhi to protest what they claimed was India's contribution through arms sales to the now escalating conflict between Myanmar's army and ethnic insurgent groups. But those calls for restraint are unlikely to be heeded among India's realpolitik hawks who over the past two decades have reshaped the country's regional outlook.
The Indian military has also pointed to the threat of separatist groups operating along its 1,640-kilometer porous eastern border with Myanmar as reason enough to bolster its neighbor's military capabilities. The two sides have signed various security pacts in recent years and India has embarked on a project to develop infrastructure along that remote frontier, allowing for quicker deployment of border forces and artillery to tackle the separatists who cross back and forth across the border.
Beyond security concerns, India is keen to deepen its alliance with Naypyidaw to foster access to Myanmar's widely coveted energy resources and open the way for road and rail links to the mainland ASEAN economies. New Delhi's regular overtures to Naypyidaw on issues like border security have been accompanied by economic sweeteners, most recently in the form of ten heavy duty rice silos designed to protect grains during natural disasters.
The package was gifted to Myanmar foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin during a June meeting with his Indian counterpart S M Krishna, one of the first foreign dignitaries to break ground with the new elected Myanmar government.
Concerns over China's rising influence, both in the region and over Myanmar, are not confined to India. Last month US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a visit to New Delhi, ostensibly to boost bilateral trade but with more significant emphasis on security cooperation.
Some analysts believe the meeting points towards a new gambit to develop a more cohesive regional front against Beijing. The US, whose influence in the region has greatly waned in recent decades, is now courting a number of Asian countries and groups whom until recently it had considered too risky to engage or superfluous to its policy objectives.
China, in turn, has been public about its concerns over strengthening US-India ties, saying that the US is attempting to draw India into its orbit as it seeks a new strategic partner in the region. By certain measures, that embrace is already evident. The US is close to pipping Russia as India's biggest weapons supplier and recent US state visits to the country are surrounded by notable pomp and circumstance. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a rare appearance at New Delhi's airport last year to personally greet US president Barack Obama when he touched down.
By forging a stronger alliance with India, Washington may or may not lock horns with New Delhi over its Myanmar policy. The US has long supported Suu Kyi and her political movement's quest for democracy but a recent State Department policy review encouraged more engagement and less isolation of Myanmar's military rulers.
Elsewhere in the region, the Obama administration has compromised its proclaimed promotion of human rights and democracy in its quest to counterbalance China. Last year it re-established ties it had earlier cut due to concerns over rights abuses with Indonesia's controversial military outfit Kopassus. The move came after Jakarta suggested it would look to China for military assistance if Washington didn't rethink its sanctions. Similar criticism of duplicity has followed Washington's counter-balancing embrace of Vietnam's rights-abusing communist regime.
By assisting India's now aggressive military expansion, Myanmar's pro-democracy opposition has started to question the seeming duplicity of the US touting itself as a friend while simultaneously arming a chief weapons supplier of its foe. Some in the opposition believe the US, too, has begun to "Look East" and subjugated its previous commitment to promoting rights and democracy in Myanmar to the broader strategic policy aim of counterbalancing China.
Myanmar has thus become a new testing ground for great power competition, a gambit that first opened two decades ago with Rao's shift from principled to self-centered diplomacy.
Francis Wade is a Thailand-based journalist with the Democratic Voice of Burma.
Myanmar a gateway to Indian 'expansionism'