The tribes, ethnicities and their issues in the Northeast are such that it takes very little imagination and some funding to stoke a social issue into an instability in a democracy like India.
China has embarked on a methodical and well laid out plan to “Rejuvenate the Chinese Dream”, to achieve its overall aim of becoming a superpower. It aims to strengthen its comprehensive national power in all domains—economic, military, technological and diplomatic to replace the United States as the prime global power. China will attempt it in multiple ways, if the proceedings of the 20Th Party Congress are any indication. China also sees India as a major competitor, which needs to be put in place to achieve its regional and global ambitions and domination. As an extension of this thought process, Northeast India offers many opportunities which are synergistic and inter-related to each other in time, space and effort which enable China to put down India and show it in poor light while achieving its larger goals. These need to be understood holistically.
IMPORTANCE OF NORTHEASTERN INDIA
In a geopolitical and strategic framework, Northeast India shares international borders with Tibet, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal. It comprises a majority of India’s international boundaries. This region is connected with the rest of India only through the narrow 22 km Siliguri Corridor. It is closer to East Asia than to the rest of India. Overall, the Northeast is of great geostrategic relevance and sensitivity to India. Accordingly, China evinces great interest in the region. This is borne by the fact that the area has witnessed many Sino-Indian military clashes—the 1962 war, 1967 clash at Nathu La, 1975 incident at Tulung La, and the 2017 attempted encroachment at Doklam. Chinese interest in the Bay of Bengal has increased of late in order to offset its Malacca dilemma. It is this larger geostrategic context that one needs, to discern Chinese political aims and strategy with respect to the Northeast, in order to fashion an appropriate response.
The Chinese approach to Northeast India has four components. Firstly, the overland approach to India through Tibet enables it to advance its influence, progress its claims and use the LAC as a pressure point to keep India off balance. There are plenty of opportunities in the Northeast from where it can do so. It can do this directly or indirectly through a neighbouring country to further its political and strategic aims. Secondly, it will endeavour to get an access to north Bay of Bengal through Bangladesh and Myanmar as part of its two-ocean strategy. Thirdly, it will endeavour to destabilise India by supporting insurgencies in the Northeast. Fourthly, China will weaponise the waters of the Brahmaputra.
THE OVERLAND STRATEGY
Mao considered Tibet to be China’s right palm, with five fingers—Nepal, Bhutan, Ladakh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. Chinese writings from time to time propound that these areas are to be liberated so as to usurp them. It is significant to note that out of these five fingers, two are sovereign nations bordering India. The other three are sovereign territories/states of India. Barring Ladakh, all these areas are part of Northeast India or share contiguous borders with it. Further, China’s intent has been amply demonstrated in these areas at various points of time. The 1962 Sino-India War was largely fought in the Kameng sector and in the Lohit Valley. The 1967 incident at Nathu La was along the Sino-Indian border in Sikkim. Despite the 2003 Memorandum of Understanding between India and China, which recognises Sikkim as a part of India, it has repeatedly tried to nibble areas along the border. It has also started claiming entire Arunachal Pradesh as part of South Tibet later. The 2017 Doklam incident involved China, India and Bhutan. Even during the 2020 face off in Eastern Ladakh, repeated efforts were made to intrude in North Sikkim at Naku La. China has also laid claim to or occupied parts of Nepal and Bhutan illegally. China’s aggressive and proactive military and political strategy to achieve its aims is ominous.
TWO OCEANS STRATEGY
The Chinese desire to be a maritime power with unhindered access across the oceans is being achieved through a massive shipbuilding program. China seeks to be a two-ocean power spanning the Indian and Pacific Oceans, overcoming the Malacca Dilemma. While it has consolidated its hold in the South China Sea and to a large extent, the western Pacific, its entry in the Indian Ocean is still nebulous. In order to project power, as per its two-ocean strategy, it should have multiple accesses into the Indian Ocean, with basing facilities for PLAN on either side of India. Accordingly, Gwadar is being developed in the Arabian Sea to India’s west. Chittagong and Kyaukpyu in the Bay of Bengal are on Chinese radar. The Chinese are building a container port facility and seeking extensive naval and commercial access in Chittagong. In Myanmar, the port of Kyaukpyu is being upgraded to a deep-sea commercial and naval base. The Kyaukpyu port is part of the China Myanmar Economic Corridor, which will link the port with Yunnan Province of China with road, waterway, and pipeline links from the Bay of Bengal. These developments will have a significant strategic impact on the Northeast. The two-ocean strategy, if successful, will turn India’s strategic flanks and bring PLA to its doorstep and thus have great ramifications.
DESTABILISING THE NORTHEAST
India’s Northeast has seen insurgencies since the 1950s. Insurgency has affected almost all states in the region. The Chinese record of supporting the Naga, Mizo and Manipuri insurgencies by training and arming them in the past, is well documented. The support has been due to ideological motives (communist), ethnic similarity and physical proximity between the Northeast and China. These facts have not changed but have been dormant. There have been reports lately that China is not only supplying arms, supporting and giving shelter to older Northeast groups and ULFA, but has also threatened in a veiled manner that it will refuel insurgency there. The cauldron of tribes, ethnicities and their issues are such that it takes very little imagination and some funding to stoke a social issue into an instability in a democracy like India. Further, all neighbouring countries also suffer from the same kind of instabilities with spillovers in India and vice versa. Keeping the Northeast in a state of constant instability is an easy and low-cost proposition for China. It will also aid China in expanding/attaining its overland claims along Tibet and also progress its two-ocean strategy. Very significantly, it will tie down India in the Northeast and retard its development to keep it down, if not out.
China is constructing or has constructed 14 dams on the Brahmaputra. There are more to be built elsewhere on the Tibetan plateau. China has recently announced that it will construct another mega dam in Tibet during its 14th five-year plan. The new dam in Medog County is to be very near the LAC (as close as 30 km across) in the “great bend”. It will affect water flows in the Brahmaputra. As lower riparian states, India and Bangladesh have reasons to worry. China is deliberately weaponizing water. There are also risks of major earthquakes due to induced seismic activity, local climate changes and consequent mud/earth slides and change in monsoon activity in peninsular India. These major ecological effects can and will be used by China in conjunction with other military options. Just as China used the time when India was most affected by the coronavirus to attempt changing the status quo of the LAC in eastern Ladakh, it can use an ecological disaster to initiate a military action to achieve its larger objectives.
With the situation in eastern Ladakh in a stalemate, China is likely to turn its attention to the Northeast to progress its designs. In this context, Northeast India has great significance to China since it provides multiple low cost options as outlined above. China is likely to exploit all four approaches incrementally using its now famous and well-established salami slicing tactics as part of grey zone warfare. When the time is ripe, it will take escalatory steps as deemed fit. This includes an attempt to win local wars with a strengthened PLA. The strident note of the 20th Party Congress is an indication of things to come. Resultantly, there will be constant pressure on India hereafter to ward off Chinese threats and strategies—direct or indirect. These need to be countered through multiple fronts—political, diplomatic, economic and military. Chinese strategic thought respects strength and is sensitive to loss of face. Both these issues should be factored into our responses. India needs to develop internal strength in the Northeast to make its people strong to withstand Chinese overtures. China has made significant inroads into our neighbourhood. The task at hand is firstly to stem the tide and reverse it through our “Neighbourhood First” and “Look/Act East Policy”. Last but not the least, the Indian armed forces need to be vigilant, well prepared and trained to face up to the evolving multidomain situation.
Lt Gen P.R. Shankar PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retired) is a retired Director General of Artillery. The General Officer is now a Professor in the Aerospace Department of Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. His articles are available at www.gunnersshot.com