Why India is Embracing Burma’s Junta
The leader of Myanmar’s repressive military junta, General Than Shwe, is in India this week for his fourth state visit. I have a story in this week’s issue of Newsweek in which I explain why India, which once sheltered Burmese refugees and saw itself as a champion of democracy in South Asia, has in recent years been cuddling up to one of the world’s worst regimes. In short, it is all about securing energy — in the form of Burmese natural gas — that India desperately needs to continue its torrid rate of economic growth, and about checking the growing influence of China in India’s own backyard. In the Newsweek piece, which is very short, I also argue that India’s increasing ties — including military sales — to Myanmar, along with China’s continuing warm relations with Yangoon, highlight how ineffective Western sanctions policy against Myanmar is. Those sanctions only apply to certain key Burmese generals and industrialists — and to Western companies doing business in Myanmar in certain key industries. But Western trade with Burma was never very great. To create a sanctions policy that works, the U.S. and EU will either need universally applied multilateral sanctions — or they will need sanctions that punish third countries (like India and China) for doing business with the junta. The U.S. just imposed these kind of sanctions on Iran. But if the U.S. is unwilling to do the same against Burma then it might be better off simply scrapping the sanctions policy and trying something else. The sanctions are clearly not working.
On a related note, The Wall Street Journal today has a good item on the fact that not only is Than Shwe visiting India right now, but so is British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has brought with him a huge delegation of Cabinet ministers and British business leaders. The Journal points out how the two contemporaneous visits of these very different leaders to India tells one a lot about the dual nature of India’s foreign policy and position in the world. I would quibble only in the sense that the dualism in Indian foreign policy that the Journal highlights is actually less contradictory than the Journal makes out. The whole reason that India needs Burmese natural gas is because its economy is booming — and that booming economy is one of the prime reasons the British Prime Minister is so interested in forging a new “special relationship” with India. India is also interested in Burma because it wants to check Chinese influence, and this too is sort of the flip-side of India’s own growing military strength and world profile. As it becomes a more important world player, it is bumping up against the other global player and emerging economic superpower in the region: China. Places like Burma become zones where China and India compete for influence. But India’s emerging military and strategic importance are also a reason for Britain’s desire to refresh its historically-close ties to New Delhi.
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