Having existed so far as the largest untapped market, Myanmar, owing to the process of democratization, has been opening up and growing in importance for existing and newer regional powers. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the diplomatic relations between Japan and Myanmar; the new Japanese assertiveness in Myanmar sends a warning signal to China’s growing influence in the country. Japan-Myanmar ties may appear to be a ‘marriage of convenience’ as both countries find common ground and maintaining a safe distance from China, but these ties seem to be at all time high.
Japan’s assistance in democratizing and building up Myanmar has deepened the partnership. Japan has appointed a special envoy for national reconciliation in Myanmar to facilitate dialogue between the government and the ethnic nationalities. Its contribution in terms of food and medical supplies has been especially commendable. Japan’s geo-political ambitions and expanding economic opportunities is posing a strong challenge to the traditional regional powers in Myanmar. Although Japan’s total investment till 2013 stands only at $292.423 million, as opposed to the $14 billion invested by China, its engagement strategy with Myanmar is an attempt to counter China in Southeast Asia. Myanmar will use a Japanese loan of about $610 million for implementing four projects — upgrading the Yangon-Mandalay rail-road, Yangon’s water supply, infrastructural development in Thilawa port and developing irrigation facilities in the Western Bago region.
The visit of the Japanese premier, Shinzo Abe, to Myanmar was noteworthy — it was the first since 1977. This was followed by the cancellation of the $ 3.7 billion debt Myanmar had owed. Japan has pledged to develop the special economic zone in Thilawa. It has shown willingness to help in the infrastructural development of the Dawei port along with Thailand. Japanese companies participated in Myanmar’s Japan festival recently. It was a chance for Japanese companies, unlike China, to make responsible investments in Myanmar.
India is stepping up its development cooperation in the light of Myanmar’s continuing reform process and its historical and cultural ties. It is focusing on ‘soft’ power diplomacy and fostering deeper economic and business links. India and Japan have kept their focus more on infrastructural development, capacity building and humanitarian assistance. According to Aung San Suu Kyi, “when you help either in the form of development programmes or humanitarian programmes, I want the people involved to gain skills so that they earn and they learn.” India has been helping to set up centres for industrial training and enhancing IT skills. In this regard, the proposed visit of Manmohan Singh in March 2014 — it will be the second in two years — is proof of the closer ties which both countries want. India’s mega project is developing the Sittwe port on similar lines as Thilawa by Japan and Dawei by Thailand. It will enhance connectivity between India and Myanmar, leading to the development of trade and boosting the economic development of northeastern states. The ambitious trilateral highway linking India, Myanmar and Thailand will add another dimension to the emerging security architecture in the region.
Japan-Thailand ties in Myanmar, and now India’s invitation to Japan to invest in and build overland infrastructure in the Northeast is going to outplay Chinese dominance in the region. Japan’s development of the Chennai port and the attempt to link it with Dawei shows the coming together of Japan, India and Thailand to confront China in Myanmar. India’s growing closeness with Japan and recent maritime security exchanges have been seen as an attempt to challenge Chinese dominance and gain strategic advantage, redefining the region’s security architecture.