Roads to Mandalay
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An integrated Southeast Asia is in India's interests
India's Look East policy, now an article of faith among foreign policy practitioners in Delhi, has always suffered from the constraints of geography. Although India's engagements with peninsular Southeast Asia — particularly Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand — have improved considerably over the past two decades, the absence of direct road and rail networks has limited its presence in the region. Several members of ASEAN, including Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, have become increasingly vocal about their desire to see an enhanced Indian presence as a healthy balance to Chinese influence. Additionally, as India elevates its commercial relationship with China, it remains wary of compromising its security by establishing a direct transportation corridor that traverses the disputed boundary. And the recent violence in Assam, among other developments in the region, highlights the urgent need to assist India's Northeast in reaping the full benefits of the country's rapid economic growth.
The gradual political and economic opening of Myanmar under Thein Sein offers India a rare opportunity to address all of these challenges simultaneously. But it would require New Delhi to act fast. The seventh East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh offers the ideal opportunity to unveil Indian intentions and engage all the relevant stakeholders.
Myanmar and the Northeast stand at the crossroads of three of the most vibrant economic regions in Asia — China, India, and the ASEAN. But along with Bangladesh, they constitute one of the worst-connected and least-developed areas in the wider region. Building a sophisticated road and rail network — and, just as importantly, improving the institutional arrangements to facilitate commerce — between India, the ASEAN and China might appear to be an overly ambitious enterprise, particularly given India's own track record with major infrastructure projects. Adverse terrain has certainly contributed to the failure to enhance commercial interconnectivity. But Myanmar's political turn, however plodding and fitful, offers an occasion to overcome the existing political and economic constraints.
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