February 24, 2020
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A Mandarin Riddle

Foreign policy experts are more guarded on China's 'mischief'

A Mandarin Riddle
A Mandarin Riddle

The confession of Anthony Shimray, billed as No. 3 in the pecking order of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), has deepened suspicions that policy wonks have always harboured about China—that it wouldn’t miss an opportunity to stem India’s growth for maintaining its headstart in the Sino-India rivalry. In his disclosure to the National Investigation Agency (NIA), scooped by Outlook, Shimray has talked of sections in China supplying arms to the insurgents and ferreting out information on the Dalai Lama and the army’s activities in Arunachal Pradesh. These don’t appear to be freelancers; on several visits to China, Shimray met many Chinese intelligence officials. The NIA report, sources say, was shared with the ministry of external affairs (MEA), which on several occasions raised with Beijing the issue of China supplying arms to Indian insurgents. Indian diplomats pointed out to their Chinese counterparts that Shimray’s revelations could stoke doubts about China’s avowed commitment to strengthen relations with India, unless urgent action is taken to curb activities perilous to New Delhi’s security interests. “Such activities are inimical to India’s interests,” says a senior MEA official. “Whenever we get the chance, we raise it with the Chinese government to ensure it takes action.”

“I don’t think relations with China have worsened so much that it would change its policy on arming rebels.”
Kanwal Sibal, Former foreign secretary

In response, the Chinese claimed they weren’t aware that arms were being pumped into India from their country; they denied outright the possibility that their government might have endorsed such a move. These disclaimers ought not to surprise anyone, but they raise an important question: In what way should India read Shimray’s confessions?

South Block officials say there are three possibilities. One, the Chinese government really doesn’t know about the gun-running, which could be the work of players in the arms black market. Two, Beijing is aware of such arms supply to Indian insurgents but is neither keen to encourage nor stop it. Three, Beijing is actively involved in supplying arms through outfits with which it maintains a discreet distance, so that it can make outright denials if questions are raised.

Of the three, Indian diplomats feel the second is the most probable, for it allows the Chinese to needle India without officially engaging in the “murky business”. Since China’s principal concerns now are to develop its economy and maintain internal peace, Indian diplomats feel that dealing with the gun-running from its soil is low on Beijing’s list of priorities—till it begins to pose serious internal threats.

But there’s also a fourth possibility—of hardliners or ultra-nationalists in the Chinese establishment pursuing low-cost activities inimical to India, pushing New Delhi on the backfoot in the Northeast, where secessionist movements have lingered for decades. In a gesture of compromise, this theory suggests, the moderates in the establishment have chosen to look the other way, being convinced that such acts will not strain relations between China and India.

Another senior MEA official says the confessions made by Shimray’s should  be perceived in the larger context and shouldn’t be blown out of proportion. “Let us be frank, this is something every big power does,” he says, implicitly suggesting that even Indian intelligence, given a chance, wouldn’t be averse to pursuing such activities. Srinath Raghavan, a strategic affairs commentator, says, “It’s common for intelligence agencies to keep a tab on dissident and rebel groups in neighbouring countries. I am sure our agencies do the same and if they do not, then they are not doing their job properly.” He argues that such operations don’t necessarily mean the Chinese government follows that policy officially. “And anyway,” says Raghavan, “in the present context of Sino-Indian relations, the cons far outweigh the pros of pursuing such a policy against India.” Indeed, encountering a plethora of problems in the western market, China is concentrating on the Indian market and trying to boost Sino-India trade, already touching $60 billion. China would stand to lose should it seek to destabilise India.

“It’s common for intelligence sleuths to track insurgencies in neighbouring lands. I’m sure our guys do the same.”
Srinath Raghavan, Strategic affairs commentator

Yet, there are many in India who cite China’s past policies to seriously doubt its current intentions. During the Mao era, for instance, China exported its brand of revolution to many developing countries; in particular, it actively trained and supplied arms to Indian insurgents, from Naxalites to Naga groups. But this policy was discarded under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, who stressed that a stable and peaceful environment, internal and external, was vital to the economic liberalisation programmes he had launched.

It’s this changed context of Sino-India relations former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal refers to when he says, “A lot of arms is flowing from China into Myanmar and other countries in the region, but it’s difficult to judge whether the Chinese authorities are behind such activities. There are differences in some key areas in Sino-India relations. But I don’t think the relationship has deteriorated enough to compel China to change its policy on arming Indian rebel groups.”

Establishment hardliners in China could be pursuing low-cost ops against India. That’s one possibility.

But this will not lull India into complacency. New Delhi plans to persistently raise the issue of arms supply with Beijing and also strengthen our intelligence network. Impressive gains have been already been made in nabbing most northeastern insurgent leaders through improved cooperation with the Bangladesh and Myanmar governments. Interestingly, months ago, India had passed on “actionable intelligence” to the Chinese about ULFA leader Paresh Baruah’s presence in the Yunnan province. No tangible results followed, but MEA officials say China should have read the message about the extent of India’s intelligence reach.

Shimray’s confessions have also inspired some in the Indian establishment to think of countermoves to rattle the Chinese. One of these could see India demanding that it be allowed to open a consulate in Lhasa, the capital of China’s troubled Tibetan Autonomous Region. Earlier, India had had consulates in Xinjiang and Lhasa, but both were closed down in the 1960s. Obviously, China is expected to say no to such demands, but our raising the demand could in itself send out the signal that if Beijing intends to fish in India’s troubled waters, New Delhi could do likewise.

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