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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 17 New Delhi April 16, 2016

China Adapts to Change in Myanmar as South Block is in Hibernation

Friday 15 April 2016, by M K Bhadrakumar


India should warm up to Aung San Suu Kyi. The democratically elected government in Myanmar, that took over power on March 30, has received its first foreign dignitary on official visit—Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Both in symbolism and content, this is significant. Myanmar’s perceived ‘pivot’ to the West seems an exaggeration or a contrived misperception. (SCMP)

Equally, the alacrity with which Beijing has adjusted itself to the advent of democracy in Myanmar takes one’s breath away. Xinhua noted in a commentary that Wang’s visit signified an “active approach to improving its (China’s) ties with Myanmar” and signalled China’s “undaunted resolve and readiness to renew the bilateral friendship and promote pragmatic cooperation” with the new government. (Xinhua)

China feels confident that Aung San Suu Kyi is committed to friendly ties, although an underlying sense of angst is also there. Compari-sons can be drawn. This was also how Beijing had responded to the emergence of the Right-wing Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi in end-May 2014. Wang came to Delhi as a special envoy in early June. But the rest is history. Beijing’s notions regarding Modi as a bold, decisive leader capable of new thinking on relations with China had withered away already by end-September. A frost set in, and this only deepened with the passage of time.

On the other hand, Myanmar is not India. The level of interdependency between Myanmar and China is appreciable and neither can afford a frost to blight the relations. China is by far the number one destination for Myanmar’s foreign trade and is also the main source of investment, while Myanmar is a strategic gateway for China to the world market and an irreplaceable partner in the ‘One Belt One Road’ strategy.

The cooling down of the West’s ardour for Suu Kyi lately has been directly proportional to her growing awareness of China’s pivotal importance to the political economy of Myanmar, which could be discerned during her high-profile visit to Beijing last June. Wang told the media after the talks with Suu Kyi on Tuesday (March 29) that “China-Myanmar relations are now at a new historical starting point”, while the latter said her country’s interests are “inter-linked” with China’s and continued support from Beijing is of “great significance”. (Xinhua)

Wang’s mission principally aims at setting the right tone so that in the downstream of it the resolution of the discord over the stalled multi-billion dollar worth of Chinese projects in Myanmar becomes easier to handle. Meanwhile, Chinese diplomacy is also visibly adapting itself to the new political environment of a democratically elected government in power in Naypyitaw, which is under compulsion to be accountable to popular sentiments. This involves much greater deployment of ‘soft power’ in Beijing’s diplomatic armoury. An opinion piece in the Communist Party tabloid, Global Times, candidly acknowledges that Chinese diplomacy simply cannot afford to overlook the role of popular opinion and popular perceptions in China-Myanmar relations. (Global Times)

Surprisingly, though, South Block is in hibernation when such momentous events are unfolding in the neighbourhood, which profoundly affect Indian interests. There has been no effort on the part of the Indian political leadership so far to reach out to Suu Kyi. Not a phone call even, leave aside a visit. South Block seems to be still smarting from the interview Suu Kyi gave to India Today Television last year where she regretted that New Delhi was “overcautious with regard to support for the democracy movement” in her country and “tried to stay away from us”. Suu Kyi was rather frank:

It’s saddened me that India, the largest democracy in the world, was turning its back on democracy in order to maintain good relations with the military government. But things have changed. Partly because of changes here and perhaps because of changes in India itself. Somehow I am always confident we will always be friends, good friends, who will be able to help one another. The past is there just for us to take lessons from it. Not to be angry or resentful.

It appears that Suu Kyi might have ruffled feathers on Raisina Hill by comparing Prime MInister Narendra Modi in rather poor light with Chinese President Xi Jinping, as also by her implied criticism of Indian Special Forces’ controversial (and ill-conceived) “hot pursuit” on Myanmarese territory in June last year. (Burma Centre, Delhi)

But the bottom line is that no matter the dialectic involving the military and the civilian leadership, Suu Kyi is the tallest leader in Myanmar, and India is a stakeholder in close and friendly relations with the new government she is de facto leading in Naypyitaw. Vanities and ego clashes should not be allowed to come in the way of national interests. The whole world knows that plain-speaking is Suu Kyi’s political trademark.

It is a paradox that Communist China can adapt itself with such delectable ease and realism to Myanmar’s transition to democratic rule, while democratic India stands transfixed like the deer caught in the headlights on a highway. The government-owned China Daily carried on April 4 an editorial and an opinion piece on Wang’s visit to Naypyitaw.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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