Why Russia-Myanmar naval drills matter for Indian Ocean geopolitics - Hindustan Times

Why Russia-Myanmar naval drills matter for Indian Ocean geopolitics

ByHindustan Times
Nov 13, 2023 04:04 PM IST

This article is authored by Sankalp Gurjar, assistant professor, department of geopolitics and international relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education.

Recently, the navies of Russia and Myanmar carried out naval drills in the Andaman Sea. This is the first time that such exercises have been carried out by both sides. It underscores the growing military and strategic relationship between Russia and Myanmar. The expanding relationship is an important development in the Indian Ocean geopolitics and has implications for India.

Russian Navy(REUTERS)
Russian Navy(REUTERS)

Since the military coup in 2021, Myanmar is under heavy western sanctions. The military junta is facing armed resistance from pro-democracy groups as well as the ethnic armed organisations (EAOs). In fact, while the exercises have been going on, these groups have launched combined operations in the north and are hoping to make strategic gains. Meanwhile, just like Myanmar, Russia is also placed under stringent western sanctions for the war in Ukraine. The west has made efforts to isolate Russia and impose economic, political, and diplomatic costs. However, Moscow has found willing partners in the Global South and is seeking to expand ties with many countries in Asia and Africa.

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In this context, Russia and Myanmar have sought to deepen their relationship. Russia has emerged as one of the key military suppliers for Myanmar’s military junta. As per reports, Russia’s engagement with Myanmar has deepened since the military takeover in 2021. The junta relies on Russian-supplied aircraft in its fight against the opposition. For the military junta, Russian support is critical. In fact, Moscow has provided the cover for Myanmar in the United Nations. The expansion of economic co-operation is also on the cards as both sides seek to sign a number of agreements. Both countries have resumed direct flights after a break of almost 30 years. Last year, at the Eastern Economic Forum, Russia and Myanmar also signed a roadmap on nuclear cooperation.

The deepening ties with Russia helps Myanmar to diversify its overwhelming dependence on China. Between 1990 and 2010, when Myanmar was isolated from the global community and was shunned by the West, China emerged as the key player in Myanmar. China remains one of the key military, political and economic partners for Myanmar. Beijing sought to build the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor and a network of energy pipelines to reduce its dependence on the strait of Malacca.

For Myanmar, it is imperative to diversify its external partners. Engaging with Russia brings three key advantages: first, it is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and has a veto power. Second, Russia is a key source of advanced defence industries and is willing to export some of those weapon systems to Myanmar. And finally, Russia is a close strategic partner of India and China, two countries that hold considerable interest in Burmese affairs. Engaging with Russia will not ring alarm bells in Delhi and Beijing.

For Russia, Myanmar is an ideal partner to engage in Southeast Asia and in the wider Eastern Indian Ocean. Myanmar links South Asia with Southeast Asia and is also a bridge between continental and maritime Asia. Strategic presence in Myanmar will help Russia to project its influence in the Eastern Indian Ocean. Russia has already engaged with a range of countries in the Western Indian Ocean (WIO) and has even sought to establish a naval base at Port Sudan. Russia’s navy exercises routinely with the navies of China, Iran, and South Africa in the WIO region. However, Russia does not enjoy a similar presence in the Eastern Indian Ocean. Myanmar could emerge as Russia’s gateway to the region. The latest naval drills with Myanmar are a first step towards the likely growing Russian presence in the region.

It remains to be seen how regional players will respond to the Russian activities. How do Australia and Indonesia look at the burgeoning ties between Russia and Myanmar? Will they be comfortable with the expanding Russian naval presence in the region? Will the growing Russian presence lead to Sino-Russian assertiveness in the Indian Ocean? How do other Southeast Asian countries view Russian moves?

As the geopolitical importance of the Indo-Pacific region goes up, Russia seeks to enhance its strategic presence in the region including in Southeast Asia. In this context, Myanmar could perhaps emerge as one of the most important strategic partners for Russia in Asia and the Indian Ocean region. India should watch out as an entry of a great power, even if friendly, in the neighbourhood is bound to alter the strategic dynamics of the region.

This article is authored by Sankalp Gurjar, assistant professor, department of geopolitics and international relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education.

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