Indian PM visiting Myanmar amid energy quest

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The visit of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Myanmar on Sunday is the latest sign that India now believes it needs to assert its presence in its eastern neighbor.

The visit underscores India's quest for energy supplies to fuel its economic boom and concerns about China's strong influence in Myanmar, where the elected — but military-backed — government is opening up its economy for investment and trade.

In recent years, India has nervously watched Beijing's domination of Myanmar's oil and gas exploration projects. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers are in Myanmar working on infrastructure and other projects.

Indian officials, however, are loath to admit that India's Myanmar policy is being driven by China's inroads there.

India wants to "secure a stronger and mutually beneficial relationship with a neighboring country that is integral to India's Look East policy," Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai told journalists Friday.

India has adopted a "Look East" policy of engaging with southeast and east Asia, reaching out and deepening bilateral ties with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Indonesia among others in the region.

Singh's visit will be the first in 25 years by an Indian prime minister, although the two countries share a 1,600-kilometer (1,000-mile) land border, as well as a maritime border in the Bay of Bengal.

Myanmar, which was once known as Burma, had been an international pariah for decades under a military junta that quashed any hopes of democratic reform. A 2010 election, though, has lead to at least some reforms and a gradual opening up to the rest of the world.

The competition between India and China in Myanmar is expected to surface again when Myanmar begins auctioning new natural gas blocks, both offshore and onshore, in which Indian companies are expected to participate actively.

"It would be in Myanmar's interest to not put all its eggs in one basket," says Rajiv Bhatia, a former Indian ambassador to Myanmar, referring to China's overwhelming presence in Myanmar's oil and gas exploration sector.

Mathai said that during Singh's visit, the two countries are slated to start a bus link between Imphal, capital of India's Manipur state, and Mandalay, Myanmar's second largest city.

India also will announce the creation of an IT training institute, an agricultural research center and a rice research park in Myanmar, Mathai said.

Over decades of isolation by the West, China reached out to Myanmar, building billions of dollars in roads and gas pipelines in the impoverished country.

New Delhi too has offered Myanmar aid and assistance, but not on the same scale as China.

In recent years, India has offered around $800 million in credit to Myanmar to help develop infrastructure such as railways, roads and waterways. New Delhi also is helping build a port in the coastal Myanmar city of Sittwe. That port, Indian officials hope, will act as a trade gateway between India's northeastern states and southeast Asia.

Bilateral trade between India and Myanmar was around $1.2 billion in 2011. Both sides hope to push trade to $3 billion by 2015.

Singh's trip follows high level visits to India by Myanmar's reformist President Thein Sein in October and visits by the foreign ministers of the two countries.

In the 1980s and early 90s, India was a strong supporter of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in her fight against the country's military. Singh will meet with Suu Kyi on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited Myanmar in 1987, the last visit by an Indian premier. But in the mid-90s, India changed tack to engage with the country's military junta, resisting pressures from the Western democracies that had imposed economic sanctions on Myanmar.

New Delhi insisted it had to follow a pragmatic policy, because it needed its neighbor's help to crack down on Indian rebels who had built hideouts in the jungles along the India-Myanmar border

India also argued that Myanmar's military leaders could be nudged toward democracy only by engaging with them — not by isolating the impoverished nation.

Mathai said India also was opposed to the sanctions because Myanmar was a neighbor.

"When you are a neighboring country, you do not have the choice of a policy and engagement," Mathai said. "You remain engaged irrespective of the situation."

In the past year, Myanmar's military leaders have freed thousands of political prisoners, eased limits on the press and launched a series of economic reform measures. The military-backed regime allowed Suu Kyi's political party to contest elections and ushered in an elected government.

In April, the European Union suspended most of its sanctions to reward Myanmar's political reforms. Last week, the United States said it would suspend a ban on American investment in the country.