By Joseph Allchin
Burma’s hermetic military rulers detest their strongest ally, China, according to an Indian official quoted in a leaked US diplomatic cable.
Washington’s Consul General in India, Peter Kaesthner, also explains in the cable that India feels its position on Burma is compromised by persistent US pressure to be more vocal about rights and democracy.
India, which does not want to be castigated for engaging the Burmese generals, has often rued external pressure. Delhi’s position is that engagement will be more productive than the condemnation of the junta expressed by the majority of western democracies.
The cable dates from 2007, and documents a conversation between Kaesthner and Mohan Kumar, the joint secretary of India’s Ministry of External Affairs.
“The more the US presses India to bring Burma before the UN Security Council, [Kumar] said, the more the Burmese tell India to ‘go to hell’,” Kaesthner wrote.
Furthermore, if India engages the generals, then Burma will be able to loosen China’s grip on the country.
“Burmese officials have told Kumar that they ‘hate’ the Chinese and would prefer not to cooperate with China, but do so because they feel Beijing is more reliable than New Delhi”.
No elaboration is given on how India would promote democracy in Burma, were it to be closer to the ruling junta. But, tellingly, the cable reveals that economic objectives in its relations with its eastern neighbour remain key.
While India has sought to increase investments in Burma over the past two decades, particularly in the energy sector, Kumar reportedly told Kaesthner that, “We’re getting screwed on gas”.
“India is not getting any gas contracts from Burma, nor is it getting the transit rights it seeks which would open a bridge to East Asia,” Kaesthner wrote.
This raises an important, but often overlooked, Indian imperative: that whilst China seeks a strategic gateway to the Indian Ocean via Burma, India in turn would seek to use the pariah as its own access point to the growing eastern economies.
It also perhaps alludes to an Indian understanding of US imperatives that look to counter China’s influence in the region.
Moreover, while references to the promotion of democracy arise frequently in the cable, it also makes mention of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, countries where China’s influence is growing and where both India and the US are keen to stem this.
Since the cable was sent in 2007, India has seemingly moved beyond the unidimensional level of cooperation over counterinsurgency on the troubled border to eye with increasing fervour Burma’s vast natural gas capacity.
Delhi has gained a stake in the Shwe gas project and has come closer to developing some of Burma’s hydropower potential, whilst bilateral trade has also increased significantly.
Tension between India and China has been a recurrent theme since the two nations fought a short war in 1962 over their disputed, ill-defined Himalayan border. The tensions persist to this day with Chinese claims for the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.
Despite trade between the two nations expanding rapidly before a recent visit to Delhi by Chinese Premiere Wen Jiabao, Beijing has described the bilateral relationship as “very fragile”.