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The South Asia Channel
The Chinese Connection
Evidence points to Chinese involvement in rebel movements in India's northeast, but this should not be a major roadblock in India-China relations.
On June 4th of this year, rebels from northeast India killed at least 20 Indian soldiers and injured 11 in an ambush in the Indian state of Manipur, near the India-Myanmar border. It was the deadliest single attack on the Indian army in more than a decade. The rebels came from armed ethnic insurgencies that have fought for decades now to secure independence from India, citing grievances like illegitimate annexation and exploitative governance by central authorities.
Since the ambush, a series of media reports have cited Indian officials positing links between these rebels and Chinese intelligence and military officials. The details are still murky, so it is wise to avoid dramatic assessments about their significance. But there’s another good reason for caution. Beijing’s behavioral precedents and current interests suggest real limits to the actions it would take in stirring up trouble in the Northeast. That’s not to say that ties with Northeastern rebels don’t exist, or that these ties align with Indian interests. But the strategic context today—and the information available so far on such ties—give little reason to expect that links between China and Indian rebels will prove a major sore spot for bilateral relations.
China-Rebel Links: The Reports
There’s a long history of Chinese engagement with Northeastern insurgents, and after a lull in the post-Mao era, such engagement seems to have picked up over the past decade. Media reports present a variety of forms of engagement. Rebel leaders have spent time on Chinese soil, met with leading Chinese intelligence officials, procured arms from China’s shadowy arms markets, gathered intelligence for China in India, and even trained cadres on Chinese soil. A 2011 Outlook magazine report suggests that Indian diplomats saw China’s engagements here as par for the course—unhelpful, but not overly concerning against the complex backdrop of Sino-Indian relations.
Until recently, militant attacks on security forces in the Northeast had declined significantly since the mid-2000s. But in late March, the armed National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang), or NSCN(K), broke its 14-year-old ceasefire with the Indian government. Since then, NSCN(K) and its allies have launched a series of attacks that have killed at least 35 Indian security personnel. It’s thought that NSCN(K) chairman S.S. Khaplang is trying to show India the consequences of sidelining his group over the past decade in peace negotiations with rival Naga insurgent groups.
Reports citing Indian intelligence assertions after the June 4th ambush have brought renewed attention to insurgent-China links. Several reports have claimed that Chinese input influenced Khaplang’s decision to break the ceasefire. The prevailing narrative says that he was swayed here by another rebel leader, Paresh Baruah, who was acting on instructions of “senior PLA officials.” In April, NSCN(K) joined with several Northeastern militant groups to form the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFW), upgrading the loose cooperative arrangement in place for some time now among Indian militants in eastern Myanmar. Reports have suggested that China encouraged UNFLW’s formation and had actually been promoting such an arrangement for several years. An intelligence official quoted in the Hindustan Times said that the Chinese had promised the new platform “weapons and logistics.”
China-Rebel Links: A Strategic View
As with before, Indian diplomats’ early reactions suggest that they aren’t inclined to overplay these links. They have good reason to be circumspect.
Among the media reports discussing Chinese involvement in the Northeast, few reports include any assessments from Indian intelligence on China’s aims. The intelligence official quoted by the Hindustan Times said that China had gotten involved “to keep things boiling in the Northeast in view of their claim on Arunachal Pradesh.” Arunachal is the region’s most northerly state, on the Tibet border, and is the subject of a long-standing border dispute between the two countries.
Pressing India on Arunachal via UNFLW seems hardly consistent with China’s interests or its past behavior around this dispute. China doesn’t need to demonstrate its military superiority in the border region—that’s well–established, especially in terms of border infrastructure. There have been no combat deaths on the border in decades. Even if recent patterns in Chinese “incursions” have been interpreted by some analysts as signals of a more aggressive border stance, such “incursions” are hardly comparable to these militant attacks.
Analysts have also speculated that Chinese ties to Northeastern rebels in recent years have been a response to India’s support for the Dalai Lama. Journalist Rajeev Bhattacharya, reporting last week on UNFLW plans for a Northeast government-in-exile, describes it as “the Chinese answer” to the Tibetan government-in-exile hosted by India. The impending question of the Dalai Lama’s succession makes India’s stance on Tibet of particular interest today for the Chinese, and Prime Minister Modi’s early gestures would not have pleased them. But signals around Chinese President Xi’s visit last fall and Modi’s visit this spring suggested a less inflammatory approach. For China, getting especially close to outfits with the ambitions of UNFLW seems incongruous set against Modi’s moderated tune.
In a broader sense, it is true that China would prefer India to align itself more closely with China’s geopolitical ambitions. India is hesitant on Xi Jinping’s signature One Belt, One Road strategy. Its stance on the South China Sea dispute and recent gestures towards the United States suggest a growing affinity for America’s bloc in the region. Against all this, China has demonstrated growing power projection capabilities in the Indian Ocean and announced $46 billion in investments in Pakistan. What serious backing for insurgent attacks would add isn’t especially clear. Such behavior would fit into the India-Pakistan dynamic far better than the China-India dynamic.
Beyond Beijing: Other Factors at Play
Beyond the strategic context, there are unanswered questions about these links that should affect how we read them. For instance, what were the “instructions” given to Baruah by “senior PLA officials?” Officials told Baruah even before this year that they would prefer if Northeastern militants formed a united front. Khaplang’s ceasefire was an obstacle to this; to create the front, Baruah needed Khaplang to end it. But that doesn’t mean anyone from China directly communicated a position on Khaplang’s ceasefire, the abrogation of which kickstarted this sequence of attacks. China may well have taken a stand—most reports say that Khaplang has been in touch with Chinese officials. But again, Khaplang had its own reasons for breaking the ceasefire and launching the attacks. The notion advanced by commentators like Nitin Gokhale, that NSCN(K) is “bent upon doing China’s bidding,” is a gross exaggeration.
Also, what might pledges of “Chinese support” entail? Consider arms supply. International observers have questioned how much influence Chinese diplomats and non-PLA officials have in determining arms sales by China’s state-dominated arms manufacturing sector. Reports from the 2000s on Yunnan’s lively arms markets described how serving and retired PLA officers profit off an arms trade that is open to any and all buyers. None of this is to say that Beijing isn’t aware of these arms sales, or that it isn’t able to apply pressure to cut out certain buyers—merely that strategic motives aren’t the only factors determining who can buy from Chinese arms dealers. Such non-strategic motives may be at play in sales to Northeastern buyers too. Chinese arms in UNFLW hands is not in India’s interests, however it happens. But the way it happens should influence how one reads Beijing’s position.
The distinctions pointed out here may seem pedantic. But they are precisely the sorts that diplomats are tasked with picking up upon—and for that reason, commentators should be too. They are all the more important for commentators analyzing intelligence leaks of varying specificity, in a spin-heavy news environment.
The Chinese are engaging with UNFLW. India has raised concerns about the matter with China before. Insofar as its inputs here are solid, it should do so again. But unless more definitive, and more damning, details emerge, we shouldn’t expect these ties to become more than a minor concern for India-China relations.