Why Myanmar's plan to acquire fighter jets from China, Pakistan should worry India

There is a pressing need for the new Indian government to engage with Myanmar at the highest levels as Pakistan and China are all set to enlarge their strategic footprints in Myanmar by selling fighter aircraft to that country.

Myanmar government is planning to procure an unspecified number of JF-17 Thunder multi-role combat aircraft. JF-17 is the joint project of Pakistan Air Force, Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) and Chengdu Aerospace Corporation (CAC) of China.

While India cannot officially object to the proposed JF-17 deal, the development underlines the need for India getting its act together. India can do so in two ways: overtly and covertly.

 Why Myanmars plan to acquire fighter jets from China, Pakistan should worry India

Chief of Army Staff General Bikram Singh (L) shakes hands with Deputy Commander-in-Chief Defence Service & Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar Army, Vice Senior General Soe Win in New Delhi on 11 December 2013. AFP

Overtly, India can step up engagement with Myanmar at all levels, particularly politically and militarily. Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs to put this crucial contiguous neighbour on the front burner of his near-abroad foreign policy outreach and ensure a top level visit within a few weeks.

The Narendra Modi government has made a good beginning on the foreign policy front by engaging with the neighbours, reflected by Prime Minister Modi making Bhutan the destination of his first bilateral foreign visit earlier this month, followed by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj embarking on her first stand-alone foreign visit to Bangladesh (25-27 June). A top level political engagement with Nepal seems to be on the cards next month.

Myanmar, which along with Bangladesh and Bhutan is vital for the Indian northeastern region, is yet untouched by Modi’s foreign policy outreach towards its contiguous neighbours, though it is understandable that the Modi government is just one month old.

Covertly, India has to step up military-to-military ties with Myanmar. These ties are already vibrant but new top-level military-to-military contacts after the new government has taken over in India would go a long way in sending the right political message to Naypyidaw.

Indian Army chief General Bikram Singh had paid a four-day official visit to Myanmar in November last. At that time there was no talk of Myanmar going to seal the JF-17 deal. This seems to be a relatively recent development, borne out by the fact that the story was first broken by the Yangon-based Burma Times on 15 June.

The Myanmar government has neither confirmed nor denied the news report which said the deal would entail licensed production of the aircraft with full technology transfer to Myanmar from CAC-PAC. However, Naypyidaw has talked about its requirement of beefing up its air combat power against the backdrop of its continuing conflict with Kachin Independence Army (KIA), an insurgent outfit active in northern parts of the country.

Weapons made in China/Pakistan making their way to India’s next door neighbour should definitely be upsetting for New Delhi. India needs to explore ways urgently to see if it can make a better and more economically viable offer to Myanmar.

Myanmar is of huge strategic significance for India. The two countries share a 1,600-km-long land boundary apart from a long maritime boundary in Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.

Myanmar has sizable gas reserves and recently it started commercial sale of its gas to China. India needs to tap Myanmar’s energy market pro-actively.

Last few years have seen the previous UPA government dragging its feet in tapping Myanmar’s vast energy potential even after the Myanmar-China gas deal was operationalised. This perhaps was the only blemish of the UPA government’s Myanmar policy. The lack of political decision by the UPA government in tapping Myanmar’s energy market coincided with the poll-bound Manmohan Singh government getting bogged down in domestic political issues.

Now that India has a stable government and a strong Prime Minister in Modi, the Indian government needs to fast-track its engagement with Myanmar, crucial for the Indian North East and a strategic gateway for India to reach out to South East Asia.

China has made forays into the Myanmarese strategic space by taking up ambitious infrastructure projects in that country. If Myanmar allows China to set up naval bases, India’s naval dominance in Bay of Bengal would be severely challenged.

The best way for the Modi government to engage with Myanmar is to speed up completion of the existing infrastructural and energy projects with Myanmar and negotiate new ones.

The writer is a Firstpost columnist and a strategic analyst who tweets @Kishkindha.

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Updated Date: Jun 25, 2014 18:27:07 IST