India losing patience with Burma dam

India should consider withdrawing from a stop-start hydropower project on Burma’s northwestern Chindwin river that despite years of diplomatic manoeuvring has struggled to take shape, Delhi’s ambassador to Burma has said.

The suggestion came in a letter sent recently to Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao. Ambassador V.S. Sheshdari was quoted in the Times of India as saying that “we should, without further loss of time, exit the project in as smooth a manner as possible rather than expending further diplomatic capital on seeking clearances etc… the delay is affecting our image and is seen as confirming local (mis)perceptions about Indian companies.”

The project, designed in collaboration with India’s National Hydro Power Company (NHPC), was first mooted in a 2004 cooperation agreement. The Tamanthi dam, as it was known, had a projected capacity of 1,200 megawatts.

The Times of India further suggests that the Burmese government’s hydropower planning department was ponderous in communications and had not offered NHPC any high-level government access.

The striking aspect of the delay is the inevitable tussle with China, at a time when Burmese President Thein Sein is in Beijing for his first bilateral visit since taking office.

Whilst India has looked to gain greater connectivity to its restive northeast region through infrastructure projects such as this, the greater imperative that concerning Delhi is its enduring rivalry with China. Frustratingly for India, the Bu’ma’s new autocratic has favoured China over its western neighbour.

The rift in influence between the two nations was highlighted by Burma’s bilateral trade figures last year – around $US4 billion with China compared to $US1 billion with India.

The relationship between Burma and China was cemented with the Shwe gas pipeline, a highly lucrative deal that India lost out on. This has seen not only a huge Chinese investment in the country but also a massive strategic reliance on Burma as China looks to the pipeline to import oil through the country.

The Tamanthi project has struggled to get off the ground, despite concerted efforts by Delhi at strengthening bilateral relations. This even included a trip to India last year by former junta head Than Shwe, during which he controversially paid homage to Indian independence hero and peaceful protester, Mahatma Gandhi.

India’s imperative in its relationship with Burma’s hermetic rulers also hinges on China and its claim to its northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. The border is an unclear colonial relic while Arunachal Pradesh is, according to the Chinese, part of Tibet, which was annexed by Beijing in the late 1940’s. The relations have not been helped by both countries’ harbouring of dissidents, with India long the home of Tibetan religious leader, the Dalai Lama, and China the alleged safe haven of Paresh Barua of the northeastern separatist outfit, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA).

This adds to Delhi’s concerns about China’s influence over bitter rival Pakistan, where Beijing’s impressive foreign policy continues apace. This comes at a time when that country’s populace and politicians grow increasingly frustrated with US patronage and the subsequent military actions that the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan has created.

These concerns have been aired by the whistleblower website Wikileaks, with one leaked US cable from 2003 stating that “according to our Indian interlocutors, India intends to seize every opportunity to counter growing Chinese influence in BURMA, even if this requires cozying up to the SPDC,” referring to the former ruling State Peace and Development Council.

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