Chinese Impact on Security Dynamics of North East Region of India

Sharing an article of mine published in the book titled ‘External Dimensions of Security of the North East Region‘, published by Indian Council of World Affairs, Edited by Dr Temzenmeren Ao. Publisher- KW Publishers Pvt Ltd, dated 18 July 2021. SBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9383445556 ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-9383445554 being marketed through Amazon.

The Article was written subsequent to my talk in ICWA, before the current standoff at Eastern Ladakh, but such eventuality was anticipated and referred in the article as repeat of Doklam like intrusion, a possibility. I am sharing the text of the article included in the book.

Chinese Impact on Security Dynamics of North East Region of India

Key Points

  • In China-India equation North East Region of India (NER) has important strategic significance and is center stage of Indian Act East Policy.
  • Resolution of unsettled border problem is complex, but delineation, delimitation and demarcation of LAC is doable and inescapable to avoid Doklam like incidents in future.
  • India needs to fast pace its infrastructure development in NER for its inclusive growth and mitigate infrastructure asymmetry on borders.
  • China retains some potential to refuel insurgency in NER.
  • There is urgent need for a water treaty to prevent its use as strategic leverage against India, by China.

China is one of the five countries which share 5100 km of international borders with the North East Region of India (NER), which is 62 percent of India’s land border, signifying its strategic importance to the nation, more so in India-China equation. NER, which consists of nine states of India, has great potential for utilisation of its large amount of natural resources, potential for hydropower, tourism and opportunities for connectivity with some neighbouring countries, which is of interest to NER and India. The geographic disadvantage, poor connectivity, perceived isolation, insurgency in some states, growing vulnerability to terrorism, ethnic conflicts arising due to migration, cross border linkages including cultural connect with some areas with China/Myanmar, inter-tribal feuds for dominance, poor economic development are some of the strategic concerns, which make prevailing security situation in this region extremely complex to deal with, but strategically inescapable to be tackled. NER is likely to be the center stage for India’s “Act East Policy” which needs to succeed to check Chinese design of regional dominance, and if Chinese have their way, they will like to sell the idea that NER could be the meeting point of Act East and BRI.

Impact of India China Border Dispute on NER

Chinese claim of Indian sovereign territory of Arunachal as its South Tibet, unsettled borders, trust deficit, relative visible calm due to fragile border management agreements, lack of identifiable demarcation of Line of Actual Control (LAC) and frequent spoilers in relative peace like Doklam incidents, pose serious challenge to security of NER and India. The issue deserves great importance to NER, due to the vulnerability North Eastern States remain connected to rest of the India by Siliguri Corridor with a narrow width of only 17 kilometers and despite our strong defensive posture, it mentally isolates North East India. Although India has tried to mitigate the problem by establishing a rail route via Bangladesh, but with growing Chinese investments and engagements there, it can hardly be considered as strategic alternative to Siliguri Corridor. India has been firm on its stand that in 2012, China and India had reached an agreement that the tri-junction would be decided in consultation between India, China and concerned third countries. Chinese on the other hand have been insisting on  Article 1 of 1890 convention, about the alignment of the boundary line between Tibet and Sikkim to say that tri-junction point between Sikkim, Tibet and Bhutan is Gipmochi and not Batang La, thus trying to confuse the issue by creating uncertainty about actual location of Gipmochi[i]. The intention of China and its strategy behind Doklam incident was to get as close to Chicken’s Neck as possible to pose a viable threat to Siliguri Corridor. 

The Chinese Activities opposite Siliguri Corridor, coupled with growing Chinese influence in Bangladesh, may be construed as a threat leading to greater strategic isolation of the North East in future, although Chinese may be perceiving it as an attempt to connect Chumbi Valley to ports in Bangladesh for easy transportation of goods to landlocked Tibet. Although the overall dependence of Bhutan on India is much more than China, and it may not be in their interest to allow the use of their soil against India, but the strategic attempts by China by making inroads in Nepal and Bhutan are a cause of concern and need to be monitored carefully due to nearness to our borders. Bhutan’s vulnerabilities and responses after Doklam crisis indicates that in adverse situation, Bhutan may not have adequate strategic resilience to prevent her infrastructure/territory to be used by PLA for their strategic gains against India, should a situation of this kind develop. 

The border problem is complicated as Chinese highlight absence of any written border Treaty between China and India as they selectively fail to recognize any treaty between Tibet and British India in Indian context. It is often mentioned that it has resolved its border dispute with 12 out of 14 countries, however Chinese argue that it was done on give and take principle. In China-India equation giving anything has a heavy political cost, as both sides interpret history as it suits them, having dug their heels to their respective positions, which is unlikely to change. Expecting India to give Tawang or China to give back Akshaichin is unlikely to be accepted by domestic constituencies on both sides. It is for this reason that every time when the talks starts on border resolution, it invariably ends with additional measures for border management. What is doable is delimitation and demarcation of LAC, which must be tried. To my mind this will happen only, when the political/strategic cost of not doing so will increase for China, in comparison to doing so. The only scenario when it can happen is when it faces insurmountable military pressure on Southeastern seaboard from group of countries. Till then China and India will continue with border management without firing with occasional border incidents. The troops on ground will have to continue facing the problem of guarding the borders without firing, like a tug of war match, with every leader and diplomat trying to give them ‘strategic directions’ and telling them to act with maturity, without understanding what it means to the soldier on ground who wants to be clear of demarcation line, which he is expected to defend.  The window of opportunity is now with Sino-US  Trade war  on, apprehensions on BRI increasing with many countries getting into debt trap including Pakistan, progress of CPEC being crucial, many countries seem to be getting together to counter Chinese encroachment of South China Sea and China getting embroiled with Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the Indian diplomacy has a chance to prove its mettle by getting both countries to actual demarcation. Only cursing Chinese will not help, because they will act as per their national interest. India must also act as per our national interest, which should be beyond quick fix agreements which exist and calling it as diplomatic success, despite the fact that Doklam like incident can explode any time, if there is no demarcation.

In this context its worth mentioning that the raising of Arunachal SCOUTS and Sikkim SCOUTS based on son of the soil concept is a positive step in context of border management and giving the local population a feel of genuine inclusiveness besides providing jobs and economic benefits to them. The affinity of these troops to defend their motherland, their local orientation and capability to fight in that terrain will be an asset for the combat capability of our armed forces.

Infrastructure Development Differential

We also need to improve the rail and road infrastructure in NER at a much faster rate than never before, something which in last many decades has not progressed at a desirable pace. The asymmetry in connectivity both sides of border poses tremendous strategic disadvantage besides sense of social isolation to locals living away from basic facilities. The substantial lead between Chinese road and rail connectivity near common borders over Indian efforts, needs detailed analysis to overcome this disadvantage. Delays about China Study Group (CSG)/strategic/border roads on flimsy grounds like environmental clearance, inadequate equipment need to be fixed, however the silver lining is that the projects are moving faster now. The fact that out of 73 CSG roads, only 36 were completed and others are yet in various state of development indicates the extent of delay. This infrastructure besides being strategically important has a dual use potential of inclusive growth of people of NER, which also integrates them socially. India needs to redouble its effort of improving road, rail and air infrastructure in NER for its inclusive growth. The social developments triggered of due to Boghibil bridge and hydro projects on lives of people of Assam and Arunachal is a case in point. It will also help in tourism which will be an instrument of social upliftment. The economic benefits of infrastructure push in NER will also provide greater job opportunities to locals fulfilling social and economic goals. 

The Chinese initiative of Bangladesh-China-India Myanmar model does not suit us, although many argue that it will help connectivity of NER. From Indian point of view, we have already established connectivity with Bangladesh including rail link between Kolkata and Agartala. We are in the process of improving connectivity with Myanmar. With Chinese efforts of infrastructure development in Myanmar due to their urge to reach Bay of Bengal, we will automatically have the option of using communication network in Myanmar; hence our connectivity needs will be met. If we chose to adopt BCIM then we would find Chinese trucks in Kolkata and the rules of some of our internal communication being interfered by China. Conversely the Indian plans of East-West Corridor (Trilateral Highway) proposing to connect South East Asian countries through multimodal transportation system, as part of India’s ‘Act East’ policy and may improve its outreach in trade flow of mutual interest. This Indian initiatives of connecting our neighbor countries through trilateral and multilateral highways involving Myanmar, Bangladesh, Thailand, extendable to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam will pay greater dividend, if India convinces them that its developmental models are not exploitative like China.   

Potential to Refuel Insurgency

China has few centuries old linkages with NER, especially tribal linkages Nagas with Yunnan Province. In past some of these linkages were used to help insurgent groups in NER, although there has not been any direct support of China for insurgency in NER in last few years, but the old experiences of it sheltering some Indian insurgent leaders does not rule out suspicion. Bulk of the weapons with insurgent groups of NER are Chinese make, but China maintains the deniability that it sells them commercially on world market and has no control over who buys it through conduits. Most insurgent groups can be lured by financial and material support, which can be provided by China whenever its national interest demands so. It therefore indicates a viable potential to ignite insurgency in future. The cross-border weapon trade and smuggling of goods including drugs and narcotics has greater potential, as Chinese footprints in Myanmar due to infrastructure and purse diplomacy increases. It is suspected that United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFW), which has nine groups including ULFA, NSCN(K), KLO, NDFB), has Chinese backing. To ensure that the local populace does not get lured by anyone inimical to Indian interest, the importance of inclusive development, social and cultural connect to mainstream the tribal population becomes even more necessary; hence India has to prove that its genuineness in their inclusiveness of last seven decades is better than Chinese engagement of centuries, which did not bring any development to them.

Water as Strategic Tool for Social Unrest and Alter Indo-Bangladesh Equation

The large-scale construction of dams and river connectivity projects by China pose a serious challenge to water security, not only to NER but South Asia. Challenges due to use of water as strategic weapon by China in absence of any worthwhile treaty loom over South Asia.  India and Bangladesh also need to worry about the shortage of water which may emerge due to water diversion and hydro-power projects of China, which may indirectly strain the relations between both, in absence of any water treaty signed between China and India. While water is the most important global common but continued avoidance of China to enter into any bilateral/multilateral treaty with downstream countries has been causing a suspicion about its intent of using it as a strategic tool. I think it is high time that India, Bangladesh, as well as Pakistan talk to China about getting into a treaty for sharing of water. The measures adopted by China to use the water resource of Tibet as its sovereign property are a cause of serious strategic and security concern. In absence of any water treaty, China retains the hydro-strategic leverages in respect of South Asia. With such storage of water China will have some capability to release extra water when India does not need it and stop the same when it faces water shortage. Pollution of water is another concern which lower riparian have to watch out. It is therefore necessary that water treaty must become a crucial subject of discussion with China bilaterally, as well as multilaterally between affected countries in common forums.  The recently signed agreement between China and India for sharing the hydrological data regarding Tsang Po/Brahmaputra River is a positive step in this direction.

Chinese Influence over Periphery of NER

Infrastructure developmental assistance in neighboring countries is integral to China’s ‘Infrastructure and Purse diplomacy of South Asia’.  It is part of China’s policy to project its soft power in the region.  Almost all countries in the region have witnessed Chinese involvement in ongoing infrastructure projects. Chinese increasing influence over Bangladesh and Myanmar, who have joined BRI project is also a matter of concern for India, especially for its influence over NER.China’s infrastructure development in Yunnan and its extension to Myanmar, besides increasing its influence over NER gives it access to the Bay of Bengal and brings its connectivity in close proximity to Indian borders with Myanmar. President Xi Jinping during his visit to Myanmar in January 2020, called China – Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) a “priority among priorities” [ii]for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which reminds of his using similar words for China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) few years back. The CMEC provides China an entry to Bay of Bengal through strategically important Kyaukphyu port leading to Indian Ocean, giving a push to CMEC and multimodal connectivity to Bangladesh. If CMEC & CPEC are viewed together it gives out Chinese attempt to strategically encircle India[iii]. While Myanmar and Bangladesh maintain cordial relations with India, have no formal military alliance with China, but due to their infrastructural needs and resultant drift into Chinese debt trap, India cannot afford to lose sight of the strategic advantages, which it offers to China. Chinese influence on northern Myanmar and nearness of both countries to NER increases its potential to influence insurgent groups in future. India needs to speed up its infrastructure development and inclusive growth of NER to arrest any disharmony and security risks. India also needs to speed up the Trilateral Highway and connectivity projects to Southeastern countries through Myanmar to avoid strategic disadvantage in its Northeastern Region.

Major General S B Asthana

Endnotes


[i]        Mitra, Deviroopa (2017), China Disputes Indian Version of 2012 Understanding on Border Tri-junction, The Wire, 03 August 2017. URL  https://thewire.in/diplomacy/china-disputes-indian-version-2012-understanding-border-tri-junction

[ii]       Zhao Laura (2020), Chinese President Xi Jinping wraps up Myanmar visit with string of infrastructure deals, including strategic Indian Ocean port, South China Morning Post, Jan 18, 2020. URL https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3046694/chinese-president-xi-jinping-wraps-myanmar-visit-string

[iii]      Asthana S. B. (2020), Is China-Myanmar Economic Corridor turning out to be another CPEC for India? Indian Defence Review, January 21,2020. URL http://www.indiandefencereview.com/news/is-china-myanmar-economic-corridor-turning-out-to-be-another-cpec-for-india/

(The views expressed are personal views of the author, who retains the copy right). The author can be reached at Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ as Shashi Asthana, @asthana_shashi on twitter, and personnel sitehttps://asthanawrites.org/email shashiasthana29@gmail.comLinkedIn Profilewww.linkedin.com/in/shashi-asthana-4b3801a6Youtube linkhttps://www.youtube.com/channel/UCl50YRTBrOCVIxDtHfhvQDQ?view_as=subscriber

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