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President to visit India, nervy China looks on

President Thein Sein will arrive in New Delhi tomorrow on a four-day visit that marks his administration’s strongest overtures to India to date, and which will strike a nerve in Beijing, whose once-watertight relationship with Burma now appears up in the air.

Security and economic cooperation are expected to top the agenda as Thein Sein makes his first journey west since taking office in March this year. Burma is looking to develop stronger relations with an acquiescent India, in part in a bid to reduce its current economic and political dependence on China.

In the wake of a decision by Thein Sein to scrap a major Chinese hydropower project in Burma’s north, Beijing will be watching his India trip with some concern. Over the past decade China’s growing global clout and seemingly bottomless pit of investment capital has won it favour with Naypyidaw over that of India, but the Burmese government has grown increasingly wary of being drawn too deep into China’s orbit.

Relations with India, which is willing to invest heavily in Burma’s natural resource and infrastructure sectors, would counter this dependence: Thein Sein will hold top-level talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who controversially hosted former junta leader Than Shwe last year, and New Delhi will seek to mould Burma into an ally which it can use for the dual purpose of tapping the country’s resources, and exploiting its position as a geographical gateway to ASEAN economies.

It may be of little coincidence that Thein Sein’s visit coincides with that of Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang, who will arrive today. Both countries are strategically vital if India is to impose itself further on Beijing’s regional sphere of influence, and both are growing increasingly uneasy about succumbing to the baggage that China’s thirst for energy carries: Burma made this clear with the cancellation of the Myitsone Dam, while naval face-offs in the South China Sea have seen Vietnam become, in Beijing’s eyes, a potential saboteur of its oil cargoes arriving via the eastern seaboard.

India will use these two issues as a launch pad to assert claims that it can offer a more stable, benevolent alternative to Beijing, whose growing presence in Burma has reawakened historic anti-Chinese sentiment among locals there, fuelled further by the costly by-products of the dam project, which has already displaced more than 2,000 people.

But not all see these developments as solely a tussle between the world’s two largest countries, both of whom are vying for superpower status as America’s global reach wanes.

“It’s tempting to see everything through the prism of the India-China rivalry, whereas there’s a lot more happening in our relationships with these two countries and quite frankly there’s a lot more happening in our relationship with China too,” Siddharth Varadarajan, editor of the Hindu newspaper and a foreign-policy expert, told Reuters.

While China’s myriad hydropower and gas projects in Burma now appear vulnerable, in India its horizon is perhaps more promising, and offers a counterweight to claims their relationship is solely competative. Former environment minister Jairam Ramesh last year urged the government to drop its “alarmist” approach to growing Chinese investment, while trade between the two reached $US60 billion last year, with a target of $US100 billion agreed for 2015.

That however has done little to ease military tension, both with regards to the long-running dispute over their shared border and an agreement with Burma that Beijing can use its ports in the Bay of Bengal, potentially allowing it permanent access to the Indian Ocean.

China also claims the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, and is reportedly arming anti-New Delhi separatist groups in a possible attempt to aid their struggle against the Indian state, thus allowing that region to be drawn closer to Beijing.




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