While India has for the most part been careful not to stray into any sensitive areas of the United States’ foreign policy engagements with third parties, its recent overtures to the heads of the military junta in Myanmar could prove to be a stress point in the India-U.S. relationship.

With Senior General Than Shwe, head of the Myanmar regime, arriving in India this weekend for a state visit, the U.S.’ anxiety over India’s growing closeness to the energy rich Asian country was palpable.

When asked about the visit, Philip Crowley, State Department spokesman, said “Others who have relationships with Burma share a responsibility to communicate directly and forcefully to Burma about its responsibilities, whether they’re protecting the region against the risk of proliferation or telling Burma directly that it should more constructively engage its opposition and other ethnic groups within Burma.”

He added, “India is one of those countries. It has a relationship with Burma and we would — as we have [said] to India in the past — encourage India and other countries to send a clear message to Burma that it needs to change its course.”

While Mr. Crowley clarified that nuclear proliferation between India and Myanmar “is not something that concerns us” his comments reflected what is likely to be of deep concern in the State Department that through its engagement with India, the military rulers of Myanmar may be gaining greater legitimacy in the international arena.

In an indication of such concern, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell was reported to have told reporters earlier that India’s “very important role in the international community” should be used to penetrate the tight military clique that runs Myanmar. He was said to have added that New Delhi should “encourage interlocutors inside [Burma] to embrace reform”.

"Look East" policy

While the Indian government had consistently criticised the Myanmar junta prior to the mid-1990s, it distanced itself from such criticism since then in pursuit of a “Look East” policy, focussing on developing stronger economic and political bonds with East and South East Asian countries.

Mr. Campbell was also quoted as saying that while India was “beginning to play perhaps a more active role” in diplomatically pressuring Burma, “they’ve also been very clear that they have strategic interests. And we respect those”.

Reports noted that in addition to Myanmar moving closer to India through, for example, a 26 per cent jump in bilateral trade, China was also “rapidly becoming the Burmese junta’s key economic and political ally, and ... Washington is doubly concerned that its rise is steadily eroding U.S. influence in the region”.

According to a statement, General Shwe will hold talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on economic and military co-operation including the possible signing of a series of trade deals. It was also reported that the discussions would focus on energy, border security and expanding counterterrorism cooperation.