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India inks maritime partnership deals with Myanmar

September 7, 2017 2:00 am JST

Infrastructure, security agreements aim to counter China's diplomatic offensive

YUICHI NITTA and YUJI KURONUMA, Nikkei staff writers

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, and Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi at a news conference on Wednesday in Naypyidaw.

NAYPYITAW/NEW DELHI -- India and Myanmar agreed Wednesday to work more closely on maritime security and to step up economic cooperation via a port project in western Myanmar, giving New Delhi a diplomatic win as it vies for influence with a rapidly rising China.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi traveled to Myanmar on Tuesday following a three-day summit of the BRICS countries -- Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- in Xiamen, China. Modi and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's de facto leader, signed 11 memorandums of understanding Wednesday in areas including maritime security and coastal surveillance.

In a news conference after the meeting, Suu Kyi expressed hope for a deeper bilateral relationship, noting that many potential areas of cooperation remain. Modi welcomed progress on infrastructure linking the two countries, singling out the finished expansion of the port of Sittwe on Myanmar's western coast and the completion of an inland river terminal at Paletwa.

Both are part of a project launched in 2010 to facilitate the flow of goods to seven northeastern Indian states sandwiched between Bangladesh and Myanmar. The route extends from Sittwe to the Paletwa terminal via a navigational channel along the Kaladan River. The next step is a road connecting Paletwa with the Indian state of Mizoram. India has provided funding for the project, and Indian companies are involved as well.

Not cowed by clashes

Modi visited Myanmar even as intensifying clashes between Myanmar security forces and the Rohingya have driven many in that Muslim ethnic minority to flee into India. The Indian leader concluded that overtures to neighboring countries were urgently needed to curb China, a diplomatic expert in New Delhi said.

Beijing and New Delhi were until recently locked in a row over the Doklam region, which is claimed by Bhutan and China and also borders India. When China moved to build a road in the disputed area, India -- a close ally of Bhutan -- sent troops across the border to block the construction, setting the stage for a military standoff. New Delhi likely also feared that letting Beijing control Doklam could threaten access to India's landlocked northeastern states, which are connected to the rest of the country by a thin strip of nearby land.

Beijing and New Delhi agreed ahead of the BRICS summit to pull their troops out of the area.

India worries that its influence over its neighbors is waning. Bhutan's criticism of China softened noticeably over the course of the two-and-a-half-month dispute. And Nepali Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba stressed his nation's neutrality when he visited New Delhi in August.

Beijing, meanwhile, has gone all out to woo these countries. It has partnered with Sri Lanka and Pakistan on port development as part of its Belt and Road Initiative -- an effort to create a modern-day Silk Road stretching from China to Europe and Africa -- and has offered economic support to Myanmar as well


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