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MYANMAR-CHINA COOPERATION: Its Implications for India

Paper no. 596          03. 02. 2003


by C. S. Kuppuswamy

The recent news item that the naval facilities on Great  Coco island are being developed by Myanmar with Chinese assistance has again brought into focus increasing China-Myanmar cooperation and the concerns of India.  It was a revelation (if not shock) to most when in an interview on the BBC George Fernandes, the Defence Minister, said that the Coco island was part of India until it was donated to Burma (Myanmar) by Pandit Nehru. The Coco island is located at 18 km from the Indian Nicobar island.

It has been reported that an eighty five-metre jetty is being constructed on this island with Chinese support at a cost of US$ 11 million and is expected to be ready by end 2003.  The other strategic development is the setting up of a modern maritime reconnaissance and electronic intelligence system on the Great Coco island.   This in conjunction with electronic surveillance facilities at the Alexandra Channel in the Andaman sea, Indian military activities in Andaman Nicobar islands and the missile testing activity at Chandipore in Orissa can be monitored effectively by China.

The strategic location of Myanmar as an entry point to the Indian Ocean and the ostracization of this nation by the West since the military take over in 1988 has been taken full advantage of by China to make it virtually “ a China satellite in the Indian Ocean”.  China cultivated the military junta from the beginning in supplying military hardware at “friendship” price. Details of the Chinese cooperation extended to Myanmar by way of military hardware, roads and communications, intelligence networks and industrial projects are listed in the appendix to this paper.

The third dimension to this increasing cooperation between China and Myanmar is Pakistan’s active participation in the process with a sinister motive for fomenting trouble in the North Eastern States of India.  In this connection Paper 401of 29.01.2002(www. 401) by the same author titled “China-Pakistan-Myanmar: The triangular relationship needs careful watch” may be seen. 

In December 2001 it came to light that two Pakistani nuclear Scientists (Suleiman Asad and Mohammed Ali Mukhtar) had moved over to Myanmar in November 2001 when US intelligence officials were investigating  the involvement of the Pak nuclear scientists with the Al Qaeda network. Prior to President Musharraf’s visit to Myanmar (May 1-3, 2001) three Pak naval vessels a submarine, a tanker and a destroyer made port calls to Myanmar.  The Myanmar government had always been maintaining that no foreign vessels would be permitted to visit the country’s ports.  Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt, the intelligence chief, perceived as a rival to the Myanmar Army Chief paid a highly publicized visit to Pakistan in June 2000, when perhaps the modalities of the military assistance were worked out.

An additional cause for concern is the idea of a growth triangle encompassing China’s Yunnan province, Burma, Bangladesh and the seven States of North East India.   The idea was mooted during a visit to China in Dec. 2002 by Bangladesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia( FEER Jan9, 2003).  China and Bangladesh have also signed a defence agreement during this visit. 

Stephen B. Young, President of Winthrop Consulting and Arthur Waldron, Director of Asian Studies at American Enterprise Institute in Washington in their article “China holds the Indo-China key” (FEER, June 6, 2002) asserts that “China’s policy in South East Asia is a radical departure from all of  prior history. It is a policy of intervention and naval adventurism seeking the subservience of mainland South East Asia to Chinese national needs. Accordingly China patronises autocracies in Burma and Vietnam.”  This may not apply to Vietnam which for historical reasons and otherwise as in the aggressive claims of China in the South China sea, can never get close to China.  But it aptly applies to Myanmar which is caught between two big neighbours China and India.

Implications for India

India is encircled by hostile nations that are friendly with China.  India’s longtime adversary, Pakistan, is out to reduce India’s influence in the region at every opportunity.  Relations with Bangladesh are deteriorating steadily since the time Khaleda Zia came to power in October2001.  The need for improvement of relations with Myanmar has therefore gained more importance.

The insurgency problem in the North East States of India cannot be controlled effectively without help from Myanmar.  Despite assurances by U Win Aung, Foreign Minister of Myanmar, during his recent visit (Jan 19-24, 2003) to India, that his country will not allow insurgent groups to carry out anti-India activities, it is seen that Myanmar has not been able to fully implement its assurances.  One reason could be the the shortage of manpower and another could be its own endemic insurgencies.

Myanmar has officially confirmed in Jan 2002 that it is building a nuclear reactor.  Two Pak scientists are known to have been in Myanmar in an advisory capacity.  Though the reactor (as per IAEA officials) is unlikely to be suitable for production of nuclear weapons, Chinese and Pakistan’s help to Myanmar for this purpose at a future date cannot be ruled out.

The drugs from Myanmar and the arms from Thailand are smuggled to the Indian insurgent groups from Tamu and a few other places on the Indo-Myanmar border. Myanmar’s help is very much needed to effectively stop this traffic.

Myanmar Foreign Minister’s Visit to India

There has been a hype in the Indian media and in the political circles about the recent visit of the Myanmar Foreign Minister U Wing Aung to India from  19-24 January 2003.  He met PM Atal Behari Vajpayee and held talks with several key ministers including the Indian Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha.  The two foreign Ministers signed a protocol which establishes regular bilateral ministerial consultations.  More than the protocol and the agreement the strategic partnership that was forged during this visit is being considered a breakthrough in the bilateral relations.  Some observers feel Myanmar now seeks good ties with Delhi as a way to balance their dependence on Beijing for trade, soft loans  and military hardware.  If so, it is a good development and India should cash on this.

Conclusion: With the successful India-Asean Summit in Nov 2002, India’s “Look-East” policy must be more pro-active and be more aggressive in promoting regional economic integration.  Myanmar has a large economic potential which is already being exploited by other Asean nations and India could also reap the benefits of this developing economy. Myanmar being one of the BIMST-EC countries India could play a dominant part to make the initiative more meaningful for improving the relationship with Myanmar. There is scope for improved bilateral cooperation in energy (oil and gas exploration), health, education, defence (supplies and training) and IT sectors.  India should be more committed in improving the relations by frequent high level visits to voice its concerns without giving a feeling that India is competing with China or is trying to wean Myanmar away from China.  India need not compete with China either as both have sufficient political and economic space for development of the region.

(Most of the inputs for this paper have been extracted from the article posted on the South Asia Analysis Group Forum  by Vijay Sakhuja, Maritime Security Analyst and Research Scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi)

Appendix: Details of China-Myanmar Co-operation

1              US $ 1- 1.2 billion worth of weapons and other military hardware to Myanmar. The Myanmar military inventory today includes Chinese origin fighter aircraft, radar and radio equipment, surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles, rocket launchers and naval ships.

2            The Myanmar Air Force received thirty-six F7 FGA aircraft between 1991-96 and orders were placed for additional 21 aircraft in 1996. Similarly, orders for four K8 trainer aircraft, a joint China Pakistan aircraft project, were placed on China to be delivered by 2000.  

3            China supplied six Huxian Class missile boats fitted with the YJ-1 (C801) surface-to-surface missiles.   Myanmar is indigenously constructing the Myanmar Class missile boats that will be equipped with YJ-1 (C801) surface-to-surface missiles. Earlier, in 1995, the Myanmar Navy had acquired ten Hainan Class patrol boats from China.

 4           China has been engaged in building and upgrading the road and rail network system from Yunan in South China to several ports along the Myanmar coast in Bay of Bengal. Beijing had shown much interest in the land route from Kunmin in Yunan, southern China to Bhamo in Myanmar and from Bhamo along the Irrawaddy river to the Bay of Bengal. In military terms, it would give Beijing a strategic foothold in Myanmar.

 5             In 1992, Beijing and Myanmar agreed that the PRC would provide major assistance in the modernisation of the Myanmar naval facilities including Hainggyi Island and Great Coco Islands. At that time, maritime facilities in Myanmar were of World War II vintage and had not been improved. Since then the Sino-Myanmar naval cooperation has grown, and the PLA presence has increased. PRC has vastly improved naval facilities at Akyab, Kyaukpyu and Mergui, all in the Bay of Bengal. The facilities at Akyab and Mergui are capable of handling far larger forces than Myanmar presently has in its inventory.


6             Chinese President Jiang Zamin visited Myanmar from December 12-15, 2001, the first by a Chinese President since 1988 when the military took over power.


7             There are reports to indicate that these countries are already having an  intelligence sharing agreement regarding India’s force deployment in the North-East and the Bay of Bengal.

8            Myanmar’s top leader Gen. Than Shwe visited China   in Jan 2003.