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The Great Power Gambit: Is Rising Border Tension Between India And China Driving Indo-Naga Political Talks? – Analysis

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The Naga homeland has seen the emergence of one of the longest-running contemporary political conflicts in South Asia and South-East Asia, where the most disparate cultures have met through power gambits. Today, this power game is played out in the form of a constantly shifting mix of cooperation and competition among the various players located both within and outside the area. Indeed, this region is witnessing a complex and dynamic interplay of interests among its key players, each of which has a distinct socio-political nature and set of goals. The power play between India and China has the potential to reshape the regional geostrategic framework and usher in a new era in relations between various players, most notably one marked by increased competition to resolve the political issue within various Naga groups and the other by pushing for regional land-connectivity. It’s a dynamic that has the potential to shift the regional geostrategic framework between China and India.

Location of Nagaland in India. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Location of Nagaland in India. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Background

The Naga homeland’s geopolitical asset has been its location at the crossroads of three countries: China, India, and Myanmar. Today’s regional power distribution reflects this long history through various channels of connection. Countries such as the United States, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the United Kingdom all play important roles in this arena, but China, India, and Myanmar have the most at stake in the power game. Furthermore, the region is a great power gambit ground, with India’s recast “Act East Policy” and China’s “Belt and Road Initiative.”

This intricate network of diverging interests and opposing identities, combined with the area’s inherent geostrategic importance, explains why the Naga homeland is characterized by so many conflicts and territorial disputes. In this context, attempting to resolve the Indo-Naga political conflict in the India-administered Naga homeland under the India’s law and order issue has the potential to exacerbate the situation. Opposition activities against the Indo-Naga political settlement have increased in recent years, drawing attention to the issue’s strategic dragging. As a result, determining the decision approach in such a scenario can be difficult, as it necessitates reaching an agreement on the respective states bordering the Naga homeland.

The Government of India’s (GoI) pacification policies in the Northeast have created as many problems as they have solved, complicating any peaceful resolution. For example, the creation of Nagaland in 1963 failed to meet Naga demands for self-determination, not only because statehood is a far cry from autonomy, but also because Nagas live in a much larger geographical area – including Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, and Myanmar – than that encompassed by the state’s boundaries. The demarcation has further divided the Nagas. The signing of the Shillong Accord in 1975 resulted in more conflict rather than progress in the peace process. Some Naga National Council (NNC) leaders rejected the accord, resulting in the formation of a new organization known as the “undivided” Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland. More recently, in 2015, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi witnessed the signing of the Indo-Naga Framework Agreement with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) led by Isak Chishi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah, which was labeled “historic.” However, with the GoI signing a “Agreed Position” in 2017 with the Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs), a newly floated conglomeration of several splinter groups in 2016, it shifted to a game of NSCN versus NNPGs, creating an intense Naga conundrum under the GoI mechanism. Among the conflicts and disputes that characterize the area, three stand out in terms of Indo-Naga political settlement: the India-China border dispute, opposition by the administrative area jurisdiction in India’s North-Eastern states of Assam, Manipur, and Nagaland, and finally on the question of Naga region division into India and Myanmar, and re-integration. 

Impact

India and China have yet to reach an agreement on the dispute over Arunachal Pradesh, which India administers but China refers to as Southern Tibet or 藏南地区. The Nagas of Arunachal Pradesh are also facing some intriguing perspectives in terms of state identification, while there is still no agreement on the disputed territory. India clearly has the upper hand because it administered the area and has taken a firm stance to assert its right in Arunachal Pradesh. However, things are not as simple as they appear, as China never recognized the “Arunachal Pradesh” as a state of India. At the same time, India prefers to play up the China threat, with the country’s fervent media frequently yelping at such claims, alarmed the country’s vocally democratic population.

Since 1947, the Naga homeland has been ravaged by Indo-Naga conflict. While it was not a significant producer of any product, and it is unclear how much untapped reserves it has in the Naga homeland, it is undeniably an important strategic trade route for all neighboring countries. The region is crucial in regional crossroad geopolitics. As a result, if the India-China war escalates, neither India nor China will be able to carry out their strategic land connectivity plans under India’s Act East Policy (AEP) or China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). A resolution is required to resolve the Naga political issue with acceptable proposals that consider historical and contemporary perspectives, as both New Delhi and Beijing see the Naga region as an important conduit of overland connectivity access to South-East Asia and the Indian Ocean, respectively.

What began as a friendly relationship between India and China on April 1, 1950, when India became the first non-socialist bloc country to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, is now the region’s worst enemy. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States encouraged Tibet’s revolt against China, eventually seizing control of the fledgling resistance movement. However, the worst relationship between India and China begins in 1959, when the CIA assists in securing the Dalai Lama’s safe passage to India and the subsequent launch of one of the Cold War’s most remote covert campaigns with the establishment of the Tibetan exile administration in the north Indian hill station of Mussoorie on April 29, 1960. According to a declassified CIA report, “India’s transformation in 1959 from friend to enemy was a development which the Chinese leaders accepted with reluctance.” The Sino-Indian border dispute escalated into a major clash between India and China in 1962, and the CIA covert campaigns that followed aided in the establishment of a rebel army in the northern Nepali kingdom of Mustang and a para-commando force (Special Frontier Force (SFF) – 1962) in India designed to operate behind Chinese lines. As a result, the 1962 border conflict was a serious setback for India-China relations, but it gave the Naga political issue a new dimension. It prompted Beijing to openly declare its support for the Nagas in 1967, and despite diplomatic relations, an all-out political war broke out between India and China on June 14, 1967. Beijing’s (Peking’s) announcement drew the first significant international attention to the Naga political issue, prompting the London Observer to publish a story titled “China has become involved in the 14-year-old conflict between the Nagas and the Indian Government.” It also piqued the United States’ renewed interest in the Naga conflict, possibly with a different strategic dimension, with Nagaland state becoming the world’s most populous Baptist state today. Significantly, despite the tense situation throughout the Naga hills, and the Government of India restriction for foreigners to visit the Naga hills, Billy Graham, an American evangelist who was able to visit Kohima in 1972 to commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary of Christianity’s arrival. In addition, the “Kashmir strategy” compelled Pakistan and Bangladesh to renew their support to the Naga national movement despite reports of Pakistan providing aid to the Nagas between 1962 and 1965. 

Despite the tense situation between India and China, as well as the tense situation between India and the Nagas, several rounds of political talks have taken place between the Nagas and India since then to resolve the Indo-Naga political issue, most notably in London in 1977 between India’s Prime Minister Morarji Desai and A.Z. Phizo, President, Naga National Council. Following Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in 1988, bilateral relations between India and China improved, as did relations between Nagas and India, with then-Indian Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao meeting Naga leaders of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) on June 12, 1995 in Paris, France, which was regarded as a “breakthrough.” Several rounds of negotiations have since taken place between the GoI/subsequent Indian Prime Ministers and the NSCN, both in India, the Naga region, and a third country.

On June 15, 2020, the deadliest clash between India and China in 45 years occurred in Galwan Valley, with the death of twenty Indian soldiers and four Chinese soldiers. According to experts on both sides. Brahma Chellaney, for example, has called it the “tipping point” in India-China relations, while Hu Shisheng has called it the “lowest point since the border war between them in 1962.” Former India’s national security adviser Shivshankar Menon describes what happened in Ladakh as a “fundamental and consequential shift in behaviour, a successful salami-slicing manoeuvre” by China, whereas Hu stated unequivocally that the “conflict was not incidental,” but rather a “inevitable” consequence of the Modi administration’s “high risk, high yield” policy. He attributed this policy to “a desire to seek revenge” by “India’s long-term pursuit of absolute security and dominance in the regional order,” as well as the Modi government’s desire to “overtake China”. What could be understood is that each side holds the other accountable for the situation. Meanwhile, in the midst of the ongoing high tensions surrounding the Galwan Valley situation, a relatively quiet event concerning the Indo-Naga political talks occurred, in which an informal dialogue between the GoI and the NSCN was resumed in Delhi on August 12, 2020, after a nine-month stalemate.

It should be noted that, on the verge of breaking down the talk at the end of October 2019, media outlets in India reported on November 22, 2019 that prominent NSCN leaders are already camping in China to seek Chinese assistance. Thus, the measure to resume informal talks between the GoI and the NSCN can be interpreted as a strategic move and an attempt to “maintain” a good relationship between the Nagas and India in the event of an India-China clash in India’s eastern sector in Arunachal, which is undeniably an extra cautious measure taken by India in the aftermath of the Galwan Valley Clashes.

The clashes in Galwan prompted India and China to make unprecedented political and individual statements and actions. India retaliated further by holding a public funeral and wrapping the body of the company leader of the Special Frontier Force (SFF), a special unit to conduct covert operations behind Chinese lines comprised primarily of Tibetan refugees living in India, in both the Indian and Tibetan flags. Indians have also called for a boycott of Chinese goods, and Indian officials have raised import duties on approximately 300 Chinese products following deadly border clashes. However, on February 19, 2021, China released on-site video of a June 2020 Galwan clash, which added another twist to India-China relations. India quickly reacted to the situation, identifying the young captain as a Naga from India’s 16th Bihar Regiment, who was leading the charge against the Chinese soldiers. The projection of a Naga in the standoff elicited an equally strong reaction from some of China’s leading media. With both sides withdrawing troops from some standoff sites on the northern and southern banks of the Pangong Tso, Gogra, and Galwan Valley in February 2021, the Indo-Naga talks had returned to a slow mode of negotiation.

Despite the first high-level meeting between the Indian and Chinese foreign ministers on July 14, 2021, to address the ongoing border aggressions, tensions remain high, with military build-up on both sides of the 2,100-mile border continuing ‘like never before.’ However, with the NSCN and the GoI’s interlocutor at odds in the midst of India-China military buildup, the appointment of AK Mishra, a former India Intelligence Bureau officer, as the new interlocutor representing India’s Prime Minister Office (PMO), in September 2021, triggered  a new round of talks between the GoI and the NSCN. While Indian and Chinese soldiers engaged in a tense standoff along the contested Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Arunachal Pradesh’s sensitive Tawang sector in the first week of October 2021, a frenetic negotiation between the Nagas and India had begun in New Delhi the following week. Thus, India’s actions to assert control over the Indo-Naga political talks can be interpreted as a message of strategic leverage to China.

Forecast

This is not simply a case of a powerful nation like the United States interfering in the issue, or India supporting the Tibetans, or China supporting the Nagas; rather, it demonstrates that the Nagas and Tibetan issue is central to regional geopolitics, and all involving countries have specific plans for the Nagas and Tibetan issue, which also explains their stance on the issue since the Cold War era. The increasing border tensions between India and China will further define Asia-Pacific strategy, or the newly constructed Indo-Pacific strategy, with a focus on territorial disputes.  India and China launching a new offensive to assert land territorial control, with India escalating the Tibetan issue and China escalating the Naga issue, the entire region will become a new power “hot” front.

To date, there has been no official outside mediation in the Indo-Naga political talks, which has been critical in other peace talks. While the Naga political issue is the result of British colonial rule, the Commonwealth can provide expertise in this area, and the United Kingdoms, in particular, can deliver historical accounts. Continued assertive actions on Indo-Naga political talks by India will increase the risk of conflict between the Nagas and India. As a result, aligning the Indo-Naga political issue or the Tibetan issue with India’s counter-China strategy eliminates the possibility of resolving the issue in the distant future under current and foreseeable conditions.

What is more likely, at least in the short term, is that India will continue to send a “test and commit” message to the Nagas in order to position itself in more effective long-term hybrid warfare operations against China, bringing the Asia-Pacific region to a whole new level of cooperation, particularly defense cooperation. In this light, India’s current effort to prevent the formation of a Naga state is not simply an engagement, but a measure to limit future China’s geopolitical influence in the region to reduce its geoeconomics relevance.

*Augustine R. is an independent researcher on the India-Naga-Myanmar political issue, as well as on broader Asian security and strategic issues, and a keen observer of China and India’s relations with ASEAN, South Asia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union.

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