SYDNEY: India has scored a string of recent geopolitical victories in Asia, including a deepening of the strategic relationship with Japan marked by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to India, and the recent de-escalation of tensions with China in the Doklam plateau.
Another development of equal strategic significance to India’s regional ambitions is the role it plays in addressing the humanitarian crisis facing the Rohingya of neighbouring Myanmar.
Almost 400,000 have fled Rakhine state since late August in response to military operations that followed attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.
The Indian government recently announced Operation Insaniyat, translated as Operation Humanity, which will provide humanitarian assistance to Bangladesh as it bears the brunt of refugee outflows.
This announcement is reassuring, given that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Myanmar featured little discussion of the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the country and a refusal by India to admit any refugees.
STRIKING A BALANCE
India faces moral obligations as a major power in the international system.
This responsibility is sometimes overlooked in the context of more frequently cited economic drivers of India’s foreign policy, such as the importance of attracting investment to improve India’s infrastructure, and its strategic objectives, such as maintaining a stable periphery and preventing the emergence of a Sino-centric regional order.
India is aware of these obligations. It provided humanitarian assistance following natural disasters, such as the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2003, and Cyclone Nargis which struck Myanmar in 2008.
India also played a prominent role in the evacuation of civilians from conflict areas such as Yemen in 2015, Libya in 2011 and Lebanon in 2006.
However, as developments in Myanmar indicate, India can do more to strengthen its humanitarian assistance and disaster relief credentials.
Moreover, given Myanmar’s geographic position on India’s eastern border and as an overland gateway to East Asia, helping to address the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar is also pivotal to maintaining the credibility of India’s Neighbourhood First and Look East policies.
The Indian government is likely to have been privately vocal in voicing its displeasure over developments in Rakhine state during Modi’s visit, thereby avoiding public embarrassment for Nay Pyi Taw. This approach would conform to India’s proclivity for quiet diplomacy and non-intervention in regional interactions.
It seems India may have learned the lessons of its earlier engagement with Myanmar.
New Delhi’s vocal condemnation of the military junta regime after it brutally suppressed pro-democracy protests in 1988 and dismissed the results of the 1990 election undermined India’s relations with Myanmar and pushed Myanmar into the arms of China.
There is also recognition of the precarious political climate facing Myanmar, with its democratic transition process still in its infancy.
This has resulted in a division of responsibilities between the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, officially State Counsellor and Foreign Minister, but effectively the head of state in the face of constitutional restrictions preventing her from assuming the presidency, and the Tatamdaw, which continues to hold onto the portfolios of defence, home affairs and border affairs, and a majority of seats in the powerful National Defence and Security Council.
In this context, public condemnation of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government would have yielded little benefit while potentially exacerbating fissures between the civilian government and military.
Nonetheless, New Delhi’s interests in Myanmar extend beyond clamping down on sanctuaries for separatist groups in the northeast, strengthening regional infrastructure connectivity, and counter-balancing China’s influence in the country.
India has a responsibility as a major regional power, a state sharing a 1,600km-long border with Myanmar and the world’s largest democracy, to ensure that Myanmar’s democratic transition is sustainable and facilitates the emergence of a stable and prosperous country that respects the rights of its population, including its ethnic and religious minorities.
The extent to which India, as well as like-minded countries in ASEAN and the broader region support Myanmar’s democratic transition process may be a deciding factor in the path Myanmar takes.
Will Myanmar follow a path similar to Indonesia, where the democratic transition process has allowed the military to gradually step back from the political sphere? Or will it follow Thailand and Pakistan, countries that continue to oscillate between weak civilian governments and military rule?
Ultimately, burnishing its humanitarian credentials offers India an opportunity to distinguish itself from other regional powers.
Doing so would allow the country to reclaim the short-lived status it acquired after independence, when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru emerged as a vocal proponent of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism, a status reinforced by the Bandung Conference of 1955 and subsequent Non-Alignment Movement.
Reaffirming the moral elements of India’s foreign policy would also offer the country the opportunity to play on its strengths.
While it’s unlikely to achieve economic parity with China or military parity with the United States anytime soon, India can nonetheless leverage its soft power status as the world’s largest democracy in dealing with the Rohingya crisis.
Chietigj Bajpaee is a doctorate candidate at King’s College London, who has worked with several public policy think-tanks and risk consultancies in Asia, the US and Europe. This commentary originally appeared in The Interpreter. Read it here.