The India-China border dispute is a colonial legacy that has been a cankerous issue between the two nations since the dawn of Independence. While India believed that the British had left behind a clearly demarcated border, the Chinese believed otherwise and claimed Aksai Chin region as their own. The Chinese side also considered Arunachal Pradesh as South Tibet and under their sovereignty. The end result was that along large stretches of the 3488 kilometres long border, there is no mutually agreed upon Line of Actual Control.
The border disputes have erupted into armed confrontation several times over the seven and a half decades of India’s independence, the worst flare up being an all-out war in 1962. In the recent months, while the world was grappling with the novel coronavirus COVID19 originating from China, the PLA started flexing its muscles in Ladakh, violating the LAC by building permanent infrastructure on the Indian side of the land. The standoff took a violent turn when the Indian forces and the PLA engaged in hand to hand combat with casualties on both sides. The past few months have seen multiple meetings between the two sides with no clear solution emerging. The Chinese have not backed down and it is evident that we are in for a long winter of border discord.
The north eastern states of India have been a focus of development for the BJP government in centre over the last six years with their immense potential to grow due to the natural abundance and the potential for domestic and international tourism. These states have since the dawn of Independence been plagued by local insurgency (many of them backed by China), low growth rates and have suffered due to their poor connectivity to the rest of the nation. The last decade has seen a huge turnaround as insurgency across the region has dropped and coupled with fast improving connectivity and improving infrastructure and communication, has started realising their potentials as growth engines for the nation. The deteriorating situation between China and India has the potential to disrupt these plans.
The Chinese hegemonistic intentions have been evident over the years with their power plays in Tibet, Hong Kong, Mongolia and South China Sea. What took some time to become evident to the world a little too late was the use of soft power diplomacy used by China through its One Belt One Road mega initiative which started off as a recreation of the original silk route. While India has steadfastly refused to become a part of OBOR, we are surrounded by neighbours who are fast becoming Chinese outposts through the fast growing infrastructure network across the region. Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar are already invested in OBOR and this has humongous security implications for India but it is the north eastern States that are in the eye of the storm. Besides this, China has also shown over the months that it is not a fair player in international diplomatic mannerisms and always had a dubious element of surprise.
China has always claimed Arunachal Pradesh as a part of their territory and Chinese officials have constantly bought up these claims on various global forums. The last few months have seen feverish activity along the Chinese side of LAC at Bisa with road and bunker construction activity in full swing. While the United States has openly supported the Indian claim, this is not an issue that is going to go away soon as the Chinese intentions for localized conflagrations along the LAC at Arunachal Pradesh seems almost certain.
The more worrisome possibility is that the Chinese like in the past may create and nurture local insurgency with weapons and money. There are indications of higher online traffic in the region which supports this possibility. Caches of Chinese weapons have been seized in the region with regularity in recent times which also supports this assumption though China has consistently denied these allegations reiterating that they sell these arms in the open market. The North East is finally moving into a peaceful and prosperous era. Any uptick in insurgency will pull us back by years.
The north eastern states are connected to mainland India by the narrow Siliguri Corridor which is 17 kilometres at its broadest. Analysts have long believed that the Doklam conflagration was targeted at getting closer to the corridor with the ultimate objective of cutting off access between the north east and mainland states. The corridor would be targeted in the future also and it is of utmost importance that we protect this corridor as its closure would have a huge psychological impact. It is also of the hugely important that we create alternate routes between the north eastern states and the rest of India.
The north eastern states are surrounded by nations where the governments are wedded to Beijing due to large investments in infrastructure in their territories. This to an extent means that they would be projecting directly or indirectly Beijing’s influence into the north eastern region. The only way to counter this is that we have to step up our efforts at growing the local infrastructure of the region along with co-opting the local population in the security apparatus to build local investment in regional security as well as greater identification with the nation. It is crucial to realise the local aspirations for economic emancipation and cultural projections to achieve these
The other area of worry has been water diplomacy. Over the last decade China has built 3 dams in the Tibet region and plans on building 8 more over the next decade. The mighty Brahmaputra river has its sources in Tibet now under China before it enters Assam. The construction of the dam on Brahmaputra raises the spectre of China using the same as a bargaining tool in future border disputes because it now has the ability to either block the supply of water causing droughts in the better part of Assam or alternately by releasing the water suddenly create flash floods. Apart from the human lives lost in such scenarios, the economic cost would be extremely high.
China has become the Global Manufacturing Outpost and with its newfound prosperity has gone about altering the strategic equation in SouthEast Asia. The security implications for the north eastern states of India are extremely high. While an all out war seems unlikely, this standoff has the potential to stretch out. India has to take a very specific and targeted approach to diplomatically solve the issue which it is doing. But this cannot be done optimally without investing heavily in infrastructure, security and employment opportunities for the north east because in the confrontation with the Dragon, it’s the north eastern region that is our first line of defence.
– Subimal Bhattacharjee
The author can be reached at the email [email protected] and can be followed on twitter @subimal