Thai-Burma port project offers big boost to India’s Look East Policy

The World

India inked six new pacts covering defence, security and the economy this week and agreed to push through a free trade agreement before the summer. But the biggest advance for India's “Look East Policy” could well come from the Thai premier's push to develop an important deepwater port in Burma — if New Delhi takes the opportunity to climb aboard, writes C. Raja Mohan.

"Developing close relations with Thailand is an important component of our 'Look East' Policy. Strong India-Thailand relations contribute to peace, prosperity and stability in the region," Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said at a joint media event with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Dawei could be the lynchpin.

Estimated to cost more than $50 billion and to be implemented in multiple phases, the Dawei project is being touted as the biggest infrastructure project ever in Southeast Asia.

Once translated into reality, the Dawei complex will put the recent Chinese port development in Gwadar (Pakistan) and Hambantota (Sri Lanka) and Kyauk Phyu (Myanmar) into shade.

Unlike the Chinese ports, which are surrounded by underdeveloped hinterlands, Shinawatra’s proposal for the Chennai-Dawei corridor will connect economically robust regions. As the crow flies from Chennai, Dawei is directly across on the other side of the Bay of Bengal.

Moreover, in contrast to Gwadar and Hambantota — seen by Indian and US security experts as part of China's so-called "string of pearls" strategy to encircle India — the Dawei facility offers a viable chance to unite the Asian economies and reduce geopolitical tensions in the region.

Interestingly, not only Burma but also China supports the project – suggesting that it could act as more than a simple transport link. Indeed, it would connect South India's emerging industrial hubs with Southeast Asia, China and other East Asian markets. But Thailand also has plans to develop additional transport corridors to link Dawei to Southern China, Vietnam’s coastline in South China Sea and the waters of Cambodia through the land-locked Laos, Mohan writes.

In other words, it would benefit both India, which wants better access to markets in the Asia-Pacific region, and China, which has plans to build a large free trade center in Bangkok, to exploit the Indian Ocean region.

As I have been reporting for GlobalPost, India is finally pushing to make the Look East Policy a reality, with a boost from U.S. President Barack Obama's bid to renew America's focus on Asia-Pacific and China's continuing belligerence in dealing with its smaller neighbors.

As Mohan puts it:

The Thai prime minister is the third successive visitor from the East to grace India’s annual Republic Day celebrations. Last year, the president of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yodhoyono was the chief guest. The year before, it was South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

India’s deepening interest in East Asia comes at a time when the region has become the principal strategic theatre in the world. As China’s power and influence in the region has grown over the last two decades, the Obama administration announced a “pivot to the East” last year.

This week in India, we're seeing results.

In a joint statement issued after their meeting Wednesday, Singh and Shinawatra said the two nations have agreed to expedite the conclusion of negotiations on a bilateral Free Trade Agreement that would include goods, services and investment,” according to CNN/IBN. They also inked agreements on extradition, counterterrorism, and taxation.

The next big move should be for India to join the Dawei project.

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