The far-flung Northeastern region (NER) is linked to the Indian mainland by a narrow strip of land that is the most striking feature of India’s geographical landscape – pernicious fallout from the troubled Partition. The NER is a victim of bad geography. But from a geo-economic standpoint, a difficult geography can spring up commercial surprises with developmental spin-offs. The region is at the crossroads of India and southeast Asia. It is a bridgehead between India and the vibrant economies of southeast Asia, including southern China. It shares borders with China, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan and makes up close to 40% of India’s land borders with its neighbors.
It is widely known that the reasons behind the 1962 China-India border conflict were: the problem of entropy in China under Mao’s watch, China’s ploy to divert India’s attention in the wake of Ne Win’s coup and to make deeper inroads into Burma, India’s diplomatic goof-ups, and China’s tearing hurry to harness the then prevailing geopolitical conditions to its benefit. But not many are aware of the fact that China was long aggrieved of the involvement of Indian traders in routing opium to China at the behest of their colonial masters, and also out of their own interests. The windfall from the opium trade was ploughed into Indian cotton mills and banks. Following the Opium Wars, a century of humiliation befell China.
China seeks territorial gains from India in 3 Himalayan sectors; Eastern (Asaphia sector of Arunachal and the Fingers Area of northern Sikkim), Central (Bara Hoti sector of Himachal), and Western (Trig Heights and Demchok area of eastern Ladakh). China claims Arunachal on historical grounds. India established a presence in Tawang in 1951, when Maj. Bob Khathing’s forces evicted the Tibetan troops based there. But substantial deposits of oil in Arunachal can give its claim a new dimension, since the state’s oil is ideally located to supply Tibet and Yunnan. The 1962 war was fought on the eastern and western fronts. Though India got a drubbing on the eastern front, the Battle of Rezang La in the western front proved to be an inflection point as the Indian forces held back Chusul from slipping into Chinese hands. Again in the fall of 1967, Indian troops repulsed intrusive attempts by the Chinese at Nathu La and Cho La in northern Sikkim, which was then a protectorate of India. The Wangdung incident of 1986 was the last time China tested the waters with India. The borders have fallen silent since. But this is does not imply that India should lower its guard or go slow on defense preparedness.
China will not repeat a 1962-like stand-off for the foreseeable future, simply because of the risks involved. The costs will far outweigh the gains. What is predictable about war is its unpredictability. War can begin with promise but end in disgrace. China is on course to becoming a global power. Until China attains that status, it would not risk losing what it has gained, as any prosperous nation becomes wary of losing what it has. The next onslaught on India would inexorably escalate into a no-holds barred conflict. China’s actions would polarize world opinion against it, and Beijing would be hard pressed to legitimize its actions. China is bogged down with maritime disputes in the South China Sea and challenged by the US’s pivot policy. It will not militarize the border dispute with India anytime soon. Beijing has shown a willingness in building military-to-military relations featuring lasting stability and friendly co-operation. Both sides are set to resume the ‘Hand in Hand’ joint military exercise this year. The Chinese Development Bank has stepped in to invest in Indian companies to offset some of the trade deficit that India is facing. China’s main intention is to prevent India from becoming a combative regional power. Denial of Chinese visas to Indian citizens of Arunachal, border transgressions, and blocking ADB loans for development projects in Arunachal are attempts to raise the stakes of India’s sovereignty on Arunachal, which China calls southern Tibet.
What is unnerving for India is China’s plans to build dams in the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra, which could be convulsive for the NER. Although China’s stated position is that the projects are only run-of-the-river power stations which will have ‘no impact on downstream flows’, the lack of a water-sharing treaty or a mechanism to verify Chinese claims belies such assertions. The mere existence of a Joint Working Group for exchange of data on water flows will not allay Indian apprehensions of flooding and erosion during the monsoons and leaner flows during the dry months. Both sides must chalk out a water-sharing treaty. The Chinese approach should be to ensure that the river water flows are maintained in accordance with the socio-economic needs of the people downstream and sustenance of livelihoods. What is far more alarming is the Chinese plan to divert the course of the Brahmaputra to the arid north as part of the proposed South-to-North diversion project, which for now remains shelved.
Another major concern is that of an enlarging Chinese footprint in northeastern India’s neighborhood. Since the signing of a defense pact in 2002, China has emerged as a key source of weaponry for Bangladesh. China is involved in developing ports, power plants, bridges, and road links between Kunming and Chittagong Hill Tracts through Myanmar. Due to its economic heft, Beijing has greater leeway in wooing Dhaka, than Delhi, in getting ahead with its strategic agenda in the sub-continent. Dhaka has in the past sheltered northeastern rebels for whom China is a reliable source of arms. The ruling dispensation in Dhaka has cracked down on Indian militants, assuaging most of Delhi’s security concerns. But the trend may differ with a change of guard and Bangladesh could turn into a conduit for Chinese weapons. Since last summer, Beijing has stepped up its probes for diplomatic presence in Thimphu. Beijing’s boundary deal with Thimphu could move the border closer to India’s, at the tri-junction in the strategic Chumbi Valley. China is the largest investor in Myanmar and is reportedly developing a naval base in Sittwe. By some accounts, China is believed to have installed surveillance facilities in the Cocos Islands, to track India’s missile and rocket launches along its eastern coast. China has supplied arms to both, the Tatmadaw (Myanmarese army) and ethnic rebel groups like the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and Kachin Independence Army (KIA), some of which have been sold to the northeastern rebels. It has now emerged that China has transferred PTL02 wheeled tank destroyers and man portable air defense systems (MANPADS) to the UWSA. What is particularly disturbing is the prospect of such weapons pouring into the NER.
Bangladesh is ringed by the northeastern states. For the NER, Bangladesh serves as an outlet to the sea and for Bangladesh, NER is the gateway to a large market. The region, though a veritable transit hub for trade and tourists from mainland India to southeast Asia, has remained a laggard in terms of development mainly due to transportation bottlenecks. Overland connectivity of the NER with Kolkata through Bangladesh can unlock the geo-economic potential of the region. A large section of people hobbled by poverty in the region are trapped in the politics of non-engagement with Bangladesh due to the lingering fear of a flood of infiltrators into India, as there is no bilateral mechanism to turn back such migrants. First, the influx of Bangladeshi migrants is a hot-button issue, especially in the political discourse of Assam. The presence of ‘settlers’, a euphemism for illegal Bangladeshi migrants, is an accepted fact, but their numbers are disputed. The notion of an existential crisis, in which the indigenous people of the NER are swamped by a rapidly increasing ‘settler community’, may be overblown, but cannot be debunked outright, as the mechanisms to detect and deport the settlers remain toothless. Bangladesh will consider accepting deported nationals only when there is an economic incentive from India in doing so. This is possible when the Indian economy is integrated with Bangladesh in a way that the bilateral trade becomes fairly balanced. Second, there is a sense of exasperation and despair in Assam that in the planned land swap deal with Bangladesh, the state will have to part with some of its land even though India will end up gaining more territory. The issue must be resolved within the ambit of an acceptable solution to those concerned, in keeping with the sentiments of the Assamese people, the larger national interests at stake and the geopolitical realities of the eastern sub-continent. Third, Delhi is fretful of the northeastern militants recouping lost ground in Bangladesh if the BNP makes a comeback in the upcoming polls. Fourth, there are other related concerns like that of Islamic radicalism, gun running, and fake Indian currency rackets. However, Delhi is working to win bipartisan support in Dhaka for co-operation in these areas.
Resolution of the vexed border problem between India and Bangladesh could yield commercial dividends for the NER by way of access to ports and land routes of the neighboring country. India has agreed to sell power to Bangladesh and jointly develop power projects and rebalance the bilateral trade. India has also opened up the land routes for Bangladesh to Nepal and Bhutan and has sought transit rights through Bangladesh to third countries as well as the NER through 15 road and railway links. The bridge on the river Feni will open up the Chittagong port to the NER. Bangladesh is a member of the “Next 11” group of emerging economies, which will contribute to global growth and is recognized for its potential to re-integrate the eastern sub-continent. Delhi has identified joint exploration and development of oil and gas projects in Bangladesh, including the setting up of a gas-based power plant, and talks are on for the development of a Myanmar-Bangladesh-India gas pipeline. The NER will expectedly be a major beneficiary of the enhanced economic engagement. In the area of security co-operation, both sides have deepened mil-mil contacts by jointly holding the “Unity” series of military exercise. In conclusion, it needs to be stressed that the success stories of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) are worthy of emulation in the NER.