India’s famous Look East policy has been in vogue for some years, however the first concrete actualisation seems to be taking place only now with a water bridge to Thailand via Myanmar. Thus Thailand Prime Minister Ms Yingluck Shinawatra was chief guest for the Republic Day in New Delhi celebrated on 26 January. This was a symbolic gesture with a view to re-establish relations with Thailand which is an important vector in India’s Look East policy. Ms. Yingluck Shinawatra was accompanied by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Defence, Commerce, Industry and Information & Communication Technology; senior government officials, and a business delegation denoting the importance and wide range of interaction that took place during her visit. The most significant development was announcement of a joint working group to examine feasibility of connectivity between the two countries by land and more importantly the sea route.
As the Joint Statement issued after a meeting of the two Prime Ministers indicated, “close cooperation on enhancing connectivity was a common theme in existing regional cooperation platforms, and [both leaders] agreed to focus on developing road and shipping infrastructure which will establish in the future, an economic corridor linking India with Thailand and Southeast Asia. To this end, the two sides announced setting up of a joint working group on infrastructure and connectivity to help expedite various development initiatives in these fields in both countries as well as in third countries. They agreed that the work of the Group could also aid regional connectivity efforts such as the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway”.
The seaward connectivity that the two countries have formulated is a link between Chennai in southern India with Dawei in Southern Myanmar from where road and railway lines will extend towards Thailand and other parts of South East Asia. Dawei being developed as a major port hub and Special Economic Zone is a gateway to Thailand as the port is on the narrow strip of land that extends from Southern Myanmar to Northern Thailand. Italian-Thai Development a joint venture has signed USD $ 8.6 billion deal with Myanmar Port Authority in November 2010 to develop a deep sea port and Special Economic Zone in Dawei. Rail and Road links are planned for connecting Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Thus India’s water bridge extending from Chennai would have access to these countries expanding opportunities for trade. The sea route will overcome long and circuitous land route as well as other alternatives that were being planned such as the Kaladan Multi Modal transport corridor to link India’s North East with Myanmar and then to South East Asia. The Chennai Dawei corridor on the other hand provides a convenient and a far safer route to connect the manufacturing hubs in southern India with South East Asia.
A Memorandum of Understanding on Defence Cooperation was also signed during the visit of the Prime Minister. Defence and security cooperation between Indian and Myanmar was also underlined with 6th meeting of the Joint Working Group on Security Cooperation held in New Delhi on May 25-26, 2011. A five-year Joint Working Programme on specific elements of cooperation in defence has been charted. A bilateral Defence Dialogue has also been established with the first meeting held in New Delhi on December 23, 2011. This enabled comprehensive review of various elements of defence cooperation and its future course. The two navies are already cooperating extensively through coordinated patrolling in the Bay of Bengal. Myanmar is also participating in joint training activities particularly related to counter terrorism.
A maritime neighbor of India, Thailand has been on the radar for security and defence cooperation for a number of years. The relationship has now moved forward significantly during the Prime Minister’s visit. This will also enable India balance the challenge from growing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean. China is already establishing a major hub in Kyaukphu port in the Rakhine area of Myanmar further to the North of Dawei. Thailand as a treaty ally of the United States could be seen as part of the balance of power established in this region with India pitching in with alternatives. Thus a trisection of interests between the countries is evident in Bay of Bengal.
The other security dimension is arms and drug networks in Northern Thailand which have been actively supplying Indian groups operating in the North East thereby resulting in considerable security concerns. Thus some action by the Thai government to neutralize these networks operating in areas such as Chiang Mai would also provide relief to India. On the whole while there may be many years before these schemes materialize a good beginning is evident.