By Vijay Sakhuja*
During March 2013, there was a port call to Vishakhapatnam in India’s eastern coast by the Myanmar Navy flotilla, comprising of a frigate and a corvette. While India is opening up and encouraging such interactions, what is significant about this port call from the Myanmar Navy? Are defence ties between the two countries warming up? Is there a road map to take this forward?
The above port call is significant from two perspectives. First, it showcases the growing trust between the defence establishments of India and Myanmar. The ship visit follows the highly successful visit by the Indian Defence Minister Mr A K Antony to Myanmar in January to ‘bolster defence ties, ranging from better border management to ‘capacity-building’ of the Myanmar’s armed forces’. In the past, the Myanmar Navy has participated in the biennial MILAN exercises hosted by the Indian Navy at Port Blair in the Andaman & Nicobar (A&N) Islands in the Bay of Bengal.
Second, after the port call, the two navies also conducted joint exercises, and engaged in coordinated patrol along the maritime boundary between Myanmar’s Coco Island and India’s Landfall Island, the northern most island of the Andaman group. This is a good development for the two maritime neighbours to address common concerns, particularly illegal fishing, poaching, smuggling, and oil spill response given that these waters witness high shipping activity.
The coordinated patrol should also be seen through the prism of Myanmar-China relations. It will be useful to recall that there had been speculations amongst the Indian strategic community that the Coco Islands were being used by the Chinese to monitor Indian naval activity in the A&N Islands. The coordinated patrolling would at least put to rest suspicions about the presence of Chinese electronic surveillance equipment on the Coco Islands.
The Myanmar Navy has gained enormously from its interactions with the Indian Navy in developing skills and an understanding of bilateral and multilateral naval engagements. Earlier this year, Vice-Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar Defence Services Commander-in-Chief visited Malaysia, the first visit by a high-ranking functionary since 1975. The Malaysian Defence Minister, Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, noted that the visit provided ‘a good start towards military diplomacy, not only towards Malaysia but also the ASEAN and Asian nations in general’. The Myanmar Navy was also expected to participate in the Langkawai International Maritime and Aerospace (LIMA) 2013 exhibition.
Likewise, during his meeting with Rear Admiral Tulataed Chuay, Chief of the Thai Marine Corps in February, the Myanmar Navy Chief expressed an interest in joining Cobra Gold, a multilateral exercise involving the US and Thai Marines. The purpose of the Cobra Gold exercises is to develop inter-operability amongst the military forces, strengthening bilateral relations, collectively respond to crises, and also promoting security and cooperation within the region.
What Does the Myanmar Navy Bring to the Table?
In 2008, in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, the Myanmar Navy suffered major losses; as many as 25 vessels sank and some reports suggest that 30 officers and 250 naval personnel may have perished. Currently, the Myanmar naval inventory includes a variety of vessels including frigates, corvettes, fast attack craft fitted with missiles and guns, and a number of patrol vessels. The frigates are of Chinese origin, and the missile boats are fitted with the Chinese C 802 (range 120 kilometers). Myanmar has also developed capability, ostensibly with Chinese assistance, to build warships: Aung-zeya class frigates and stealth corvette 8 x Kh-35E anti-ship missilesare good examples. The frigates are fitted with Kh-35E anti-ship missiles, and the corvettes have C 802 SSMs. Reports also suggest that 20 vessels of the ‘5-series Fast Attack Craft’ are under construction at the Navy’s dockyard, as also in the privately owned Sin-ma-laik Dockyard in Yangon. The bulk of the Myanmar Navy is built around smaller craft for coastal patrolling, and its ability to respond to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief is limited.
Notwithstanding the platform limitations, the Myanmar Navy appears to be ready to join the international community after nearly three decades of isolation (self-imposed and external factors) and participate in both bilateral and multilateral initiatives. Its interest in engaging with the US Navy through Cobra Gold is a significant development. Interestingly, in the early stages of its development in the 1950s, the Myanmar Navy had received a number of vessels including corvettes, patrol craft, and mine sweepers from the US under the Mutual Defence Assistance Programme (MDAP).
The Road Ahead
While these are important initiatives, Myanmar is actively engaged in the ADMM Plus, which has established five areas of cooperation in maritime security, counter-terrorism, disaster management, peacekeeping operations, and military medicine. As Myanmar prepares to take over the Chair of the ASEAN in 2014, there will be several opportunities for the Myanmar Navy to lead various ASEAN maritime initiatives and activities, as also hone skills to enhance multilateralism. In the coming years, the Myanmar Navy can also be expected to actively participate in international naval and maritime conferences and exhibitions.
Director (Research), Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi
E-mail: [email protected]