China’s interest about India in general and in the north east India is nothing new. Immediately after independence of both the countries by 1954-55, Chinese authorities raked up the ‘old map’ controversy and claimed significant parts of north east India. In subsequent years, betraying an alleged ‘expansionist designs’, by 1960, they came up with an idea of formation of a ‘Himalayan Federation’ comprising Nepal, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh (erstwhile NEFA).
1962 is too well known. Thus even in circa 2015 when there is buzz about support from China to various insurgent agencies in the north east India, there is little to dispute on the same.
The Naga rebels led by Thuingaleng Muivah and Isak Chishi Swu had visited China in early 1960s and armed guerrillas got training too.
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Strategically the ‘unity’ of the Eastern Naga Revolutionary Council, the Burmese Naga organisation led by Shangu Shangwan Khaplang and the NNC was emphasized. Later on the Chinese support extended to help smooth coordination between Nagas, Meiteis (Manipuris), Mizos, Chins and Kachins and later on Assamese (ULFA) to give a lasting impact on militancy history.
However, creditably for both the countries, India and China have not exactly been at daggers drawn after 1962, but neither have they been the best of friends. The history has not been wished away but both the countries have struggled to improve ties especially on economic and trade.
The present Narendra Modi regime has tried to befriend China and the reciprocation from Beijing has not been discouraging. But the ‘fundamental contradictions’ do define Sino-Indian relations. India and China are competitors for the same turf. Both are growing economic powers, with India lately trying to unleash its potentials. Both are important Asian players, both key BRICS members and both want to be recognized as “the most important power” in the region vis-à-vis the declining influence of the western powers.
Having said these, the first support to north east militancy from China came for Naga rebel leader Thuingaleng Muivah when in 1967 the crafty NNC leader (who later floated potent National Socialist Council of Nagaland- NSCN along with S S Khaplang, a Myanmarese Naga and Isak Chishi Swu) went to Yunan province of China along with 300 odd Naga youth for the armed training. Initially, they were termed as Naga National Volunteers and were reportedly accommodated in military camps in Eu-Kung near Chengtung. Even Isak Chishi Swu, chairman of NSCN and the then Foreign Secretary under A Z Phizo in 1960s had visited China.
“I have great respect for Chinese leaders and the Chinese people. I see in them greatness and so I have admiration for them. They tried to understand our point of view,” Muivah had said in a television interview many years later in 2004.
In fact, this Chinese support, say Indian security specialists “redefined” the course and history of the Naga movement for all time to come.
The Nagas were followed by Mizos, Meiteis and also Assamese.
The 2015 buzz about ‘support’ to other insurgent groups like PLA of Manipur is only a continued episode of that phenomenon.
Honestly speaking military and diplomatic officials in both countries seem to appreciate the gravity of the problem between two countries.
“…the difference in view on this (issues like Sikkim as integral part of India) lies in historical background. But for mutual interest and friendship we have adopted some flexibility and made adjustments in our policy,” remarked the then Chinese ambassador to India Zhou Gang on March 16, 2000. Similar ‘flexibility’ if not more is displayed by Indian authorities too. The ruling BJP leaders of PM Modi says, the big and bold step by Indian government to grant e-Visas to Chinese tourists was a crucial step that have stunned Chinese authorities but ‘endeared Modi’ to the Chinese people.
Many if and buts associated with such episodes can be appreciated only in due course as many answers lie only in the womb of time.
Coming back to China’s interest in the north east region and its sponsorship to the militancy it would not be wrong to state that insurgent groups from the northeast have always looked towards China for support. Several groups even formally incorporated elements of Chinese ideology as part of their manifesto. The NSCN, for instance, continues to emphasise on the term “socialist” while advocating the slogan of “Nagaland for Christ”.
“There is no denying the fact that the insurgency in north east India would have assumed an ominous contour as it has without foreign support, both covert and overt especially from powerful neighbours like China,” says a former army corps commander and GOC Nagaland.
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But China has its issues too. Beijing has more than once gone on record about its stand on Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. Notwithstanding certain hype created over improvement in relations in last decade or so, there is no gainsay to point out that the hidden controversies – like Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim – cannot really guarantee a total stable relation. Beijing continues its stand in not accepting Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh – the two geo-politically significant states – as integral parts of India even as it recognized the Nathula Pas border trade along Sikkim.
It is worth recall that delivering a talk on ‘China in the present day context’ in New Delhi to mark the 50 years of its independence, Chinese Ambassador to India Zhou Gang said on March 16, 2000 “Although the boundary issue between China and India is very complicated one …… a reasonable solution will be found as long both sides are sincere”. Later responding to queries from reporters at the Press Club of India in New Delhi, Zhou said the “biggest” border dispute between two countries is in Arunachal Pradesh. “China’s view is that it is part of Chinese territory, but it is not under our control,” he had said.
India’s policy on Tibet too has displeased Beijing.
So the crux of the real issue is – there are pending problems. But equally vital question is, Can Beijing now revive such ‘subversive’ tactics at a time when global thinking on nationhood has changed and people clamour for peace and development.
One good thing about Modi’s hyped interactions with Chinese leadership is both governments are opening up.