Why does China fear India’s Northeast region?


India’s Northeast region is all of a sudden in the limelight with the increasing realisation in Delhi of its strategic importance. But a developed Northeast region and a strong Indian presence in East Asia may not go down well with China. Lt.Gen. D.B. Shekatkar (retd.) deconstructs the Chinese psyche.

It is an undisputed fact of human history that if we make the mistake of ignoring geography and history to evolve philosophy of governance, successive generations will continue to suffer. History and geography have combined to make the Northeast (NE) region, homeland to Mongoloid India, a remote frontier. Partition aggravated its geo-political isolation, even as rising ethno-cultural consciousness among its extraordinarily varied, polyglot population, and migrant pressures have given rise to tensions and violence.

The region lacks the political weight or sufficiently compelling voices to impact on or influence national discourse. At the dawn of Independence, the partition put back the economy of the region by almost 30 years as the NE region lost its markets, transit routes and arteries of communication and trade. It became a land-locked region with a very narrow land route known as Siliguri corridor of just 20 kms, sandwiched between Bhutan and Bangladesh. NE region includes states of Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and now, the state of Sikkim. These states are spread over an area of almost 2,50,000 sq km with a population of over three crores. NE has international borders with Tibet (China), Myanmar and Bangladesh. The political fragmentation of the Northeast has resulted in the creation of a number of mini-states and autonomous units within them. Except the two princely states of Manipur and Tripura, the states of Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh (earlier NEFA), have been carved out of Assam state. There is even now a demand to carve out states of Bodoland and Karbi Anglong! This has resulted in undercurrents of tension, mistrust and conflict of interests between the states and within states.

Neighbouring countries mainly Myanmar and Bangladesh have been used as safe havens by insurgent groups and anti-India elements. China and Pakistan have taken full advantage and instigated, supported and have sustained insurgency and unrest in NE region. This region is of great strategic importance to India. The region loosely referred to as remote, forgotten corner of India, is now gradually in the process of emerging as a gatewayto East Asia due to its geographical and cultural connectivity and proximity to East Asia. Flights from Guwahati, the capital of Assam take less time to Bangladesh and Thailand, than the flight from Guwahati to New Delhi!

The importance of being Tibet

The people of Arunachal Pradesh had religious affinity with Tibet because of successive Dalai Lamas’ religious influence. Tibet has always been an autonomous region. It was never ruled by China. The McMahon Line which is the disputed issue between India and China was drawn on British maps based on the Watershed principle. The line has never been demarcated on ground. India’s perceptions of boundary are based on McMahon Line which is not accepted by China.

In 1962, China launched an armed attack in the area of Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. Chinese ingress was up to Bomdila in western Arunachal Pradesh and Wallong in eastern Arunachal Pradesh. Due to the neglect of the Armed Forces, we suffered a military defeat during the 1962 war.

After the rude shock of the 1962 war, the central government at Delhi started some notional development in NE and Arunachal Pradesh. The situation is totally different today in 2015. Since 1962, China has developed infrastructure in Tibet region with rail, road and air network. She has developed road connectivity through Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) upto Karachi port. A new port at Gwadar is being developed. Tibet region is of strategic importance to China as well as to India. All major rivers flowing through Arunachal Pradesh into India originate from Tibet region. Arunachal Pradesh has the potential to be a powerhouse to provide water and electricity to India, Bhutan, Bangladesh and even Myanmar. Eastern Arunachal Pradesh also provides avenue for rail, road and air connectivity to China and East Asia through Myanmar. Arunachal Pradesh is also rich in mineral resources which are yet to be fully discovered and made commercially viable.

China has developed all weather connectivity upto Chumbi Valley between Sikkim and Bhutan. She also wants to develop rail communications. This can militarily threaten the Siliguri Corridor which is the only surface route connecting India with NE. China also has a territorial dispute with Bhutan. China has been gradually and systematically increasing territorial claim lines into Bhutan.

Since the last few years, China has termed Arunachal Pradesh as South Tibet. Since I have served as member of ‘Joint Working Group’ and also an ‘Expert Group’ dealing with boundary dispute, I am fully aware about the Chinese grand design and strategy in Arunachal Pradesh and NE region. China has been supporting and sustaining insurgent groups in Myanmar to increase the area of influence. China needs a favourable situation in Myanmar to have an approach through Myanmar up to Bay of Bengal. To maintain a watch on sea lanes, China already has communication and port facilities on the sea coast of Myanmar. China also has established facilities along the sea coast of Bangladesh. China is presently busy in capacity building in Tibet, PoK, Myanamar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Capacity building takes time, once you have the capacity, the capabilities also improve, and once you have the capacity and capabilities, your intentions can change! This is an undisputed philosophy of governance and warfare.

Why does China support Northeast insurgents?

Since 1963, China has been helping, training, equipping, supporting and sustaining all insurgent groups fighting against India in the Northeast. It continues even today. During possible conflict in the future, China expects these insurgent groups to revolt against India, resulting in internal unrest in NE. Such a situation will have very dangerous implications on combat and military capability of Indian Armed Forces. Despite our efforts to improve our relations with China, it would be unwise to ignore these harsh ground realities.

The entire NE is rich in unexplored mineral resources which are so essential for industrial and economic growth of the region and means of sustenance to the people of NE. Due to conflict and unrest in NE, the private players who have the capacity to invest in industrial and economic growth, shy away from NE. This results in lack of employment opportunities to the youth who in turn resort to violence. It suits both China and Pakistan to keep NE under tension and unrest. China will not be comfortable in increase in connectivity and economic activity of India in East Asia, and NE region holds key to East Asia.

China is pursuing the ground strategy of expanding the natural geographical barriers of its mainland and thus controlling the frontier regions of Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia etc., to make an entry into Central Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia. Arunachal Pradesh (called south Tibet by China) is of strategic importance to China in its geo-strategic plans in Bhutan, Tibet, Myanmar and Bangladesh. To make a concerted entry into East and South China Sea, East Asia is of vital importance to China. China would like to control both South China Sea and the India Ocean by 2035 to execute its two-ocean strategy of control of Pacific and Indian Oceans. Arunachal Pradesh and NE fit into its overall grand strategy and designs. To pursue these, China has been following several policies in the diplomatic, political, economic, strategic and military domains. China has been reasonably successful in achieving many of these goals! India needs to be very careful of such grand designs and geo-strategic interests of China.

Meekness is not a strategy

China has been carrying out border violations and deliberate border aggressions in Ladakh region as well as Arunachal region. The frequency, depth and strength of the armed intrusions and aggressions have been gradually increasing which is a cause of concern to India. Unfortunately, our meek response during the last 10 years to these violations and aggressions has emboldened China to carry out more intrusions and incursions. It continues nibbling into our territory. We must remember that China respects armed power. India must face these challenges from a position of strength. Our Homeland Security, Defence and Foreign Policy need to be revised. It is hoped that the new Central government will take China seriously.

There is a need to study the Chinese fault lines. It has always been the policy of India not to interfere in the internal affairs of any of our neighbors, which is the right philosophy. However, considering the combat power, ambitions and hegemonic attitude of China, it is absolutely necessary to understand the fault lines and weaknesses of our adversary and make him aware that we are aware of these weaknesses. China has enough challenges in Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and most of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) nations.

The emerging protests in Hongkong must be a cause of concern to China. China has been exerting political, diplomatic and armed pressure on the neighbouring countries to force them to accommodate China’s ambitions. China has to face and counter three “internal evils”, i.e., ‘separatism’, ‘extremism’ and ‘splittism’. China rightly views incidents related to Uighur activism in Xinjiang and elsewhere as incidents of terrorism, and is finding it difficult to manage and control. Would the present leadership in China (political, diplomatic and armed forces) care to understand what ‘damage’ China has done to India’s peace, security, stability, economy and progress by igniting, supporting and sustaining “armed revolt” and “insurgency” in the entire NE region since 1964? The strategy to contain India and “degrade” India’s national power continues even today. The Government of India and people of India do not want any conflict with anyone including China on boundary issues, territorial issues or any other issue. India has made sacrifices in the past, given concessions and accommodated the demands of our neighbours. Indian leadership must understand very clearly that “there is no such thing as an inevitable war. If war or conflict, aggression comes, it will always be due to failure of human wisdom”. We have experienced this in the 1962 conflict with China, 1965 war with Pakistan, Kargil wars with Pakistan; the world too has witnessed this since 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq and now ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria)! Human wisdom is very important in resolving outstanding issues and disputes. India would do well to remember the philosophy of Chanakya: “If you know your adversary and if you can deter them, you will live in peace for hundred years”!

China considers India as a weak neighbour; weak in every aspect of national development, stability, economy, progress and armed power. It is an unfortunate fact that there are many so-called experts, analysts, think-tank who never feel tired of projecting China as a very strong and superior power in every aspect of governance, combat potential as well as military power. Our so-called experts fail to understand and accept the simple philosophy of human survival and human behaviour – ‘the weak have one powerful weapon, the errors of those who think they are strong’! China must understand and accept the reality that India is not the India of 1962, 1965 or even 1970. It would be in the interest of everyone to resolve the issues and disputes without failure of human wisdom.

With the change in political leadership, our national vision, our emerging philosophy and our resolve to “make in India, make for the world”, India is emerging as a ‘Land of Opportunities’. India’s security challenges have also become more diversified and complicated in the recent period with non-traditional challenges and threats.

It would be very appropriate to take serious note of an editorial written by Mr. Ahmed Sadik in a very prominent and valued newspaper of Pakistan, DAWN. He wrote: “It speaks volumes for the quality of India’s ‘state craft’ in handling of internal situation in a manner that in spite of so many separatists, armed insurrections, it is able to remain strong and stable, and also do business with the world and also thrive economically”.

The NE is in transition to a new order. Where does one begin? Too many have got lost in circular arguments to end insurgency, unrest border disputes and boundary disputes. To end insurgency, one must create opportunities; but economic development cannot gain momentum unless insurgency is ended. Too much time has been lost and the problem must be tackled simultaneously on all fronts.

The people of Northeast want peace, stability and progress. This can be achieved by an end to mindless violence. China can join India in infrastructure development, energy production, industrial and agricultural growth, trade and commerce. Such a constructive and meaningful cooperation can result in a win-win situation for both India and China and most importantly, for the people of East Asia and above all, people of Northeast India.


Lt.Gen. D.B. Shekatkar (retd.)

The writer, a recipient of PVSM, AVSM and VSM medals, has served in the Indian Army for four decades. He has participated in the Indo-Pak war in 1965 and 1971. During the Kargil war in 1999 he was in-charge of the entire China front in Arunachal Pradesh. He has served extensively in Northeast combating insurgency in Assam, Nagland, Manipur and other areas.