NAYPYIDAW: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held talks with Myanmar’s president on Monday in a historic visit aimed at boosting trade and energy links and contesting the influence of regional rival China.
Manmohan, the first Indian premier to visit Myanmar in a quarter of a century, was greeted with a guard of honour as he met President Thein Sein in the capital Naypyidaw.
Energy-hungry India is eyeing a raft of agreements with its neighbour after dramatic reforms in Myanmar ended its international isolation.
Singh will travel to the main city of Yangon for talks with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Tuesday, in a move seen as a sign that India also wants to repair links with the veteran activist.
New Delhi was once a staunch supporter of the democracy icon, but changed tack in the mid-1990s as it sought closer ties with Myanmar, and drew international criticism for its engagement with the former junta.
India has since pointed to recent dramatic reforms under a new quasi-civilian regime, including Suu Kyi’s election to parliament in April by-elections, as a validation of its stance.
Singh is the latest in a series of top-level visitors to Myanmar as the international community begins easing sanctions, raising hopes that the impoverished nation could be the next big frontier market. An Indian diplomat who declined to be named said that about 12 agreements were set to be inked during the talks. Singh is seen as looking to expand India’s influence after half a century of military rule left Myanmar heavily reliant on Chinese investment and support.
Indian-backed infrastructure projects in the country include a port at Sittwe on the Bay of Bengal but New Delhi’s presence lags well behind that of Beijing, which is behind a host of major energy developments. “India does seem to have been rather slothful in its response to Myanmar’s reforms compared to the enthusiasm shown by many other world leaders,” said Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific Chief Economist at IHS Global Insight.
He said Myanmar was in the grips of a “gold rush”, and that oil and gas are an area of “considerable opportunity” for investors.
According to data from IHS, China led the ranking in investments in Myanmar last year, pledging $8.3 billion, with India trailing in 13th place, with $189 million pledged. Indian trade with Myanmar stood at $1.2 billion in 2010, far short of the $4.4 billion between China and Myanmar.
Singh, who is travelling with a top-level business delegation, stressed the countries’ “shared history and culture” in a statement ahead of the visit.
India sees Myanmar as the springboard to a closer connection with the ASEAN as well as a key partner in counter-insurgency and economic development drives in its northeast border areas.