Giving Naypyitaw the cold shoulder is not in New Delhi’s interests
India not only shares long land and maritime borders with Myanmar, but it also sees the country as a strategic corridor to Southeast Asia. Given the porous state of the frontier and the cross-border movement of people and guerrillas — some trained and armed by China — close counterinsurgency cooperation with Myanmar is vital for India’s security.
Yet, as the host of the June 16-17 Association of Southeast Asian Nations-India foreign ministers’ meeting, New Delhi is giving Myanmar the cold shoulder.
Falling in line with double standards practiced by the U.S., India will host the foreign minister of Thailand, where the army chief who staged a coup in 2014 remains in power in civilian garb, but not Myanmar’s foreign minister after the military there seized power 16 months ago.
The military has long dominated politics in Myanmar and Thailand. But Washington, while seeking to isolate and squeeze Myanmar, has deepened cooperation with the Thai government, despite its crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, including use of lese-majeste laws to imprison anyone deemed to have insulted the king.
The 10-nation ASEAN has traditionally favored a policy of engagement and noninterference, which explained the presence of Myanmar military chief Min Aung Hlaing at its April 2021 leaders’ meeting in Jakarta that emphasized “the ASEAN family.” But later, wilting under stepped-up U.S. pressure, ASEAN excluded him from its annual summit last October.
Here is the irony: In the name of promoting democratic rights, U.S. President Joe Biden’s Myanmar policy has sought to win the cooperation of ASEAN, most of whose member states are under authoritarian rule.
They include Brunei, an absolutist monarchy; communist-ruled Vietnam and Laos; Singapore, governed by only one party since independence; and Cambodia, where the ruling party holds all the parliamentary seats.
Indeed, Biden invited only three ASEAN states — Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia — to his democracy summit last December, while at his recent special summit with ASEAN leaders, Myanmar was represented by an empty chair.
The bigger paradox centers on India, whose security over the years has come under pressure from specious U.S. distinctions between “good” and “bad” terrorists and “good” and “bad” autocrats.
For example, despite Pakistan’s politically dominant military maintaining a close nexus with terrorist groups, Washington still retains that state as a “major non-NATO ally,” a special status conferred on 17 other countries but not India.
Yet, by not inviting Myanmar’s foreign minister to a meeting during the officially proclaimed India-ASEAN Year of Friendship, New Delhi is giving credence to Washington’s geopolitically driven distinction between Myanmar and the other ASEAN states.
In justifying Myanmar’s foreign minister’s exclusion, India’s foreign ministry has sought to hide behind the U.S.-shaped ASEAN stance of inviting a nonpolitical Myanmar representative. In response to India inviting just its top foreign ministry bureaucrat, Myanmar will likely boycott the New Delhi meeting, as it has done with other ASEAN meetings since last October.
More fundamentally, Biden’s sanctions against Myanmar affect that country’s neighbors in the same way the U.S., already confronting a southern border crisis, would be affected if it sought to punish and isolate Mexico. Still, without consulting Myanmar’s neighbors that face an influx of refugees, Biden has stepped up his sanctions drive against Myanmar, even as he eases sanctions pressure on Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
Biden’s use of economic and political levers to help unseat Myanmar’s military regime has only worsened the situation in that strategically located country, emboldening some opponents to take up arms and hardening the military regime’s crackdown while exacerbating cross-border impacts.
And just as the deepening U.S. involvement in the Ukraine conflict to help inflict a strategic defeat on Russia is beginning to fracture European unity, Biden’s uncompromisingly punitive approach toward Myanmar has hopelessly divided ASEAN, unraveling its long tradition of a consensus-based decision making.
Meanwhile, in less than six months, a feckless India has gone from sending its foreign secretary to Myanmar to meet the military ruler to excluding that country’s foreign minister from its upcoming meeting with ASEAN.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s yielding to U.S. pressure has already undercut India’s once-growing relationship with a key neighbor, Iran. The U.S. used its Iran sanctions to deprive India of cheaper oil and turn it into the world’s largest importer of American energy — a development that allowed India’s rival, China, to become Iran’s almost exclusive buyer of oil at a hefty discount, as well as becoming top security partner and investor.
Now Modi could be making a similar mistake with Myanmar, which China views as its gateway to the Indian Ocean. Myanmar has historically been a peaceful neighbor for India, never posing a threat to its security. But the Modi government’s snub could jeopardize Indian projects in Myanmar and counterinsurgency cooperation.
Biden’s Myanmar policy has had the perverse effect of weakening America’s hand while strengthening China’s. And by nudging India into giving Myanmar the cold shoulder, Biden is pushing that resource-rich nation into China’s arms.
Modi, for his part, is forgetting that a country that allows its policies toward its own neighbors to be influenced by a distant power will inevitably be seen as weak.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”