India in the 21st Century is faced with a plethora of internal security challenges. What makes these challenges more complicated is that most of these internal threats also have an external dimension to it. The North-East region of India has its own distinct set of challenges: 98% of its borders are international, only 2% is connected to India through the strategic Siliguri Corridor (Upadhyay, 2016). Most of the tribes in the region such as the Nagas and the Mizos are distinct from the people in the mainland by virtue of their “Mongoloid” ethnicity and in fact share cultural similarities with people on the other side of India’s frontier in Myanmar (Rao, 2016). Moreover the North-East presents itself as an “India in miniature” because of the huge diversity within itself (Bhaumik, 2015).
Despite such challenges, the Central Government gave little attention to the region and their step-motherly treatment of the “Seven Sisters” continued for several decades. This policy of the government was taken advantage of by hostile states like China and Pakistan which wants to “bleed India by a thousand cuts” (Raza, 2016). India now suddenly finds itself being surrounded by a multitude of ethnic separatist and insurgent groups in the North-east, many of which have already created virtual parallel states in their areas of influence. The presence of such hostile states in the neighbourhood have also aided significantly in training, funding, arms supply, intelligence support etc of these groups. While such support have come from several states like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar also, but what makes the study of Chinese involvement in these insurgencies very interesting is the prominent role that they play in all these dealings.
The background to the problem
During Mao’s era, there was overt and official Chinese assistance. Such assistance gained momentum after the 1962 border conflict with India. The first of these insurgent groups in North-east to gain from Chinese assistance were the NNC1 in 1966, followed by the NSCN2, MNF3 etc (Bhaumik, 2015). They got trained in guerrilla warfare, learnt revolutionary Maoist ideals and also got access to sophisticated arms which they could not find anywhere else (Anant, 2012).
After Mao’s death and following the gradual normalisation of relations between India and China, the level of Chinese support dwindled but still continued (Doval, 2016). This was a time when Deng Xiaoping started his “open door” policy and wanted to be less involved in proxy wars with India.
The Recent Upsurge
It is suspected that Chinese support to militant groups in North-east India have seen an upsurge recently (Doval, 2016). This comes in the backdrop of the yet to be resolved boundary dispute. The Chinese were greatly infuriated by the response of the then Defence Minister of India, George Fernandes after India successfully conducted the thermonuclear tests in 1998 when he identified China as “potential threat number one”. Later on, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s letter to the US President Bill Clinton expressing the same view made China even more upset (Manoharan, 2012).
Moreover the India-US Nuclear Deal and the “Strategic Partnership” between them coinciding with the “Asia Pivot” strategy of the US made Beijing more apprehensive of the true nature of the partnership (Manoharan, 2012). While India denies being part of any China containment strategy, Beijing however seems to have stepped up their support to North-east militants. Recent arrests of Wang Qing, a Chinese Spy disguised as a TV reporter and Anthony Shimray, a key official and major arms procurer of the NSCN-IM4 in Patna highlighted the close connection China still have with these groups (Sharma, 2016). There are also intelligence inputs that Paresh Baruah, the Commander-in-Chief of the ULFA5 is hiding in Ruili, China. This was revealed very recently by L R Bishnoi, Additional Director-General of Police, Assam. He further said: “Chinese intelligences have been helping, directly or indirectly various insurgent groups of the North-eastern region that have their bases and hideouts inside Myanmar. These groups are under increasing influence of the Chinese agencies, and ULFA leader Paresh Baruah is among those top leaders who have been in regular touch with the Chinese liaison office in Ruili on the China-Myanmar border” (Kashyap, 2017).
Almost all the North-eastern militant groups continue to source sophisticated arms and ammunitions from Chinese companies like NORINCO6. But what is more worrying and significant is that these various north-eastern insurgency have come under the umbrella of a Chinese backed and NSCN-K7 -led grouping calling itself the “The United National Front of West Southeast Asia” (Parthasarathy, 2015). The Chinese however are clever not to be seen as a directly involved in the region as such linkages might also provoke India to create ruckus in Tibet or Xinjiang. They have also found in Pakistan a willing state with shared interests to conduct their activities in India (Manoharan, 2012).
The Chinese influence among the North-eastern groups also came in the limelight when Aurobindo Rajkhowa, leader of ULFA, appealed to the Chinese leadership on Dec 25, 2003 to provide them a safe passage and temporary shelter to China in the wake of the Indo-Bhut joint campaign to flush out the militants hiding in Bhutan which, however Beijing refused (Tribuneindia.com, 2003). China also enjoys tremendous clout over the Kachin Independence Army which is involved in an armed insurrection against the Myanmar Government and which also enjoys a cosy relationship with the North-eastern extremist groups (Parthasarathy, 2015). Moreover Chinese assistance to Myanmar in building a naval base at Sittwe Port in the Rakhine State (which is the closest Myanmarese port to India) might also enable it to enforce anti-access, anti-denial strategy to deny the Indian Navy the ability to operate there. This can have great implications for North-East India as it may lead to clandestine arms transfer through those waters for the insurgent groups in the region (Goswami, 2016).
Despite Indian suspicions over Chinese links to militant groups in the North-East for several decades, the government has been unable to come up with an effective strategy to control it. The 1962 Chinese aggression has also created an impression in the minds of the policy-makers that the lack of development in the North-east might be helpful in slowing down possible Chinese adventures in the region in future. This defensive mind set was also evident recently when the Indian Army opposed the construction of a proposed 1500 km road project along the China border in Arunachal Pradesh by calling it a “liability” (Chaudhury, 2016).
There is also a perception that the increase in such covert Chinese activities in the North-East is to pressure India to actively support the BCIM8 corridor project. While such an ambitious plan can help in the development of the North-East, India fears that it will flood the region with cheap and low quality Chinese goods which will further worsen its trade deficit with China (Sajjanhar, 2016). As such, the response from India towards this policy has been lukewarm.
Moreover while India has raised the issue of Chinese linkages with Beijing from time to time under the aegis of counter-terror cooperation, but such responses have often been criticised to be too soft in comparison to its geopolitical weight (Manoharan, 2012).
Keeping in mind the vast challenges that India faces not only in the North-east but also in other regions like Kashmir and Central India, there is a very urgent need to come up with a well-coordinated policy involving all the stakeholders such as the government, civil society etc to tackle it.
In addition, India should strengthen cooperation in the region with the ASEAN through initiatives like the Japan promoted “Partnership for Quality Infrastructure”, the BCIM Economic Corridor and the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor with the US. Some positive developments in this direction can also be seen with Japan pledging an assistance of Rs 5700 crore to strengthen highways in India’s North-east region (The Economic Times, 2016).
Moreover, issues of governance in the region especially the long standing demand of repealing AFSPA9 should be handled and addressed carefully and cultural and people to people interactions in the region should be promoted.
Diplomatically, India should show greater sensitivity to Chinese concerns especially with regard to Tibetan political activities in the region (Sharma, 2016) but such sensitivity should come at a reciprocal basis.
Lastly, more than anything else political will is necessary to convert India’s North-East into a strategic game-changer rather than using it as a pawn in this great game. Considering the amount of options that India has on the table with Japan and the US also willing to synergise their Asian policies with India’s “Act East” policy, it can be argued that India has never been in a better position to deal with China than now.
*Jyotishman Bhagawati is a postgraduate student of International Relations at South Asian University, New Delhi (A SAARC Initiative). He can be reached at [email protected]
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1. Naga National Council
2. National Socialist Council of Nagaland
3. Mizo National Front
4. National Socialist Council of Nagaland- Isac Muivah
5. United Liberation Front of Asom
6. The China North Industries Corporation
7. National Socialist Council of Nagaland- Khaplang
8. Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (Trade Corridor)
9. Armed Forces Special Powers Acts