Looking east through India’s universities

The opening of Myanmar to the outside world over the last two years has happened with astonishing speed, coupled with dexterity and deft diplomacy on the part of the Myanmar government. Or else, U.S. President Barack Obama, who rebuked India just three years ago for its approach to Myanmar and Iran, would not have changed U.S. policy in relation to Myanmar (and most recently to Iran as well). However, India has consistently held that engaging with the regimes in power is more productive than attempting to coerce them through sanctions. But now that the whole world is rushing to Myanmar, what should India do?

ASEAN links

There are three factors that influence India’s choices vis-à-vis Myanmar, with not all of them being necessarily in harmony at any time. First, Myanmar is seen as a great opportunity, constitute as it does a land bridge to the ASEAN region. India has watched from afar as ASEAN nations have forged extensive production networks between themselves and the larger and more dynamic economies of China, Japan and Korea. These larger networks have by now become so embedded that the region is now heading to a comprehensive Free Trade Area. Myanmar is an opportune gateway for India to tie itself into these networks.

Second, India is conscious that its regions bordering Myanmar are among the poorest areas in the subcontinent in terms of overall development, and are beset further with a variety of internal dissensions and disturbances. Indian economic outreach to Myanmar which invests heavily in that country but brings no benefits to India’s Northeast will exacerbate these problems. So, domestic factors weigh deeply in India’s mind as she engages with Myanmar.

Varied opportunities

Finally, there is the “ghost in the room.” Thant Myint-U’s recent book on Myanmar was titled Where China Meets India , driving home the point that geography is paramount in any description of Myanmar — indeed, it has coloured her history and will perhaps influence her future as well. So, like Banquo’s ghost, the spectre of China hovers overhead whenever India deliberates about what course of action to take vis-à-vis Myanmar. And India is quite aware that it does not have the scale of financial resources to deploy in Myanmar as has China.

So, how does it tackle this three-way conundrum? Lessons from business history might be apt. In the commercial world, it is not always the larger or stronger competitor who wins in the market place. In most cases, it is the more creative, flexible and timely player who succeeds. And rather than throwing money at the problem, it is far more productive to find out what the customer wants and whether your own areas of strength can respond to those needs.

So what does Myanmar want? As for any other developing low-income nation, Myanmar’s needs are legion, not excluding physical and social infrastructure, manufacturing industry, energy, transportation, etc — in fact, all else but basic foodgrain. The scale and scope of these needs make it impossible for any one nation to attempt the investments required. But there exists a set of needs even more fundamental — i.e. capabilities. China could build Myanmar’s roads, ports and dams, but who would operate and maintain them? Similarly, the education system needs teachers and experts, and the health infrastructure requires not only doctors but also nurses, paramedics, pharmacists and technicians. Engineering and architectural talent, urban planners, designers and a vast range of skilled craftsmen are needed for manufacturing and construction. Most of all, the governance system requires inputs in management skills, taxation, law, finance, tourism, environment, parliamentary and electoral procedures, commercial regulations, etc. It is in the area of creating and maintaining capabilities that India has a competitive advantage vis-à-vis China, starting with a basic feature such as a widespread, working knowledge of the English language, and a large education and skills infrastructure, even if that infrastructure is hugely inadequate for India’s own needs.

Academic ties

There are two ways in which India could help Myanmar develop these capabilities. One, build the necessary facilities in Myanmar. That would be monumentally expensive and time-consuming and politically a non-starter. Better would be to make large investments in building these capabilities within India’s boundaries especially in the Northeast where there is the added advantage of a large school base with a pre-existing and widespread competence in English. Consider what could happen if a 50 per cent increase in seats were made possible in engineering, skilled technical trades, medicine, pharmacy, nursing, construction, law, management and commercial skills. A portion of this enhanced capacity could be reserved for foreign students from the immediate neighbourhood i.e. Myanmar and perhaps Bangladesh and Bhutan as well. Such an approach would also align India’s domestic and foreign policy objectives.

Moreover, receiving education in a foreign country is an intense experience for any student. Thousands of successful students returning to Myanmar with a useful education can only create and enhance long-term goodwill towards India. For Indian students too, the experience of mingling with their foreign counterparts would be salutary.

The approach of “do what you know best” can be put to multilateral use as well. Capability-building, whether in India or in Myanmar, can be done in partnership with other countries. This writer has seen a consortium development approach being strikingly successful in countries such as Mongolia, where nations of varied political hues have collaborated in different projects whether in natural resource extraction or infrastructure-building. Must India and China always think of each other as rivals or competitors? Is it too naive to think of Sino-Indian joint projects and ventures in Myanmar where they could be productive and creative partners? Success in a few such exemplary initiatives would lay to rest the current realist geopolitical orthodoxy which states that “rising powers” are eternally doomed to live in a state of contention with each other.

A role in the successful development of Myanmar is important for India, and not just for the benefits it will bring such as the connectivity with ASEAN. More fundamentally, it could change our outlook by demonstrating an important truth — that India cannot develop sustainably if her neighbours remain backward and weak.

That is a vital lesson and one which we need to act upon, if South Asia is to move towards becoming a region of peace, growth and prosperity.

(Ravi Bhoothalingam is an independent director, corporate consultant and honorary fellow of the Institute of Chinese Studies.)

New Delhi must reach out to Myanmar by offering education and training in the diverse fields in which capacity building is required for the newly emerging country

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