India just carried out one of its largest-ever covert operations in peacetime, striking a Myanmar-based terrorist group and killing over 100 of its members. The National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang), known more popularly by its initials NSCN-K, was targeted because of the terrorist attack it pulled off last week in the Northeast Indian state of Manipur. In the worst ambush suffered by the Indian military in 20 years, the group killed 18 troops and injured 20 more before escaping back across the border with only one loss. The NSCN-K is part of a much larger problem, however, since it’s part of a recently created umbrella group of Northeast Indian terrorists called the United Liberation Front of West South East Asia (UNLFW), which brings together Assamese, Bodo, and Naga separatists (Rajbongshi militants from West Bengal are also involved, but due to their relative geographic exclusion from the others, they’re excluded from the present analysis). The UNLFW shares many tactical and strategic similarities with ISIL, and barring religious distinction (or lack thereof), they’re essentially the same type of cutting-edge destabilizing organization. Since India has indicated that it’s willing to wage its own War on Terror in the Northeastern states and Myanmar, it’s necessary to explore the situational intricacies surrounding the Indian-Myanmar frontier and forecast the most likely scenarios for how this campaign can play out.
The article begins by framing India’s Act East policy and describing the strategic objectives and hurdles that it entails. It then focuses on the specific situation in Northeast India in order to set the stage for better understanding the UNLFW and its structural designation as the ‘Southeast Asian ISIL’. Afterwards, the second part addresses the competing interests between India, China, Myanmar, and the US in this forthcoming conflict, before gaming out the most probable scenarios that can unfold.
India Approaches ASEAN
The South Asian giant has recently decided to more actively engage ASEAN, unveiling the Act East policy to succeed its earlier Look East predecessor. Simply put, India wants to be more proactive and dynamic in dealing with the larger Asia-Pacific region, and is no longer content with playing a reactive and passive role. In some way, this emboldened behavior towards China’s backyard is motivated by Beijing’s own forays in India’s traditional neighborhood via its ‘String of Pearls’ and Maritime Silk Road strategies. As China moves closer to India’s neighbors, India seeks to do the same to China’s, and this conflict of overlapping strategic interests is nowhere more evident than in Myanmar (which will be discussed in full later). At the same time, however, the opportunity for cooperation is still present, since both sides are party to the proposed BCIM trade corridor between themselves, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, meaning that full-fledge competition isn’t entirely inevitable.
India is relying on the complementary projects of a mainland highway and the maritime ‘Cotton Route’ in order to fulfill its vision of enhanced interconnectivity with ASEAN. Its sea-based network is less dependent on geopolitical surprises and thus inherently more stable than its planned highway, but it’s insufficient for firmly entrenching New Delhi’s interests in the East. Therefore, the ASEAN highway from India’s Northeastern states through Myanmar takes on a pivotal role for any long-term Great Power ambitions that the country has in the region, since it would become a magnet for further investment and development that would anchor its influence all along the route.
For these reasons, India is now China’s main long-term rival in ASEAN, and depending on the degree of its pro-American affiliation in the future, it could become the unipolar battering ram in Beijing’s backyard. The future prospects for conflict thus depend on India’s geopolitical intent and alignment with American strategic goals in the region, which have yet to be definitively expressed by Modi. The lack of clarity coming out of India has led to a strategic security dilemma with China. Beijing is uncertain of which way New Delhi will lean when push ultimately comes to shove, hence why it’s so apprehensive about Indian engagement in ASEAN and justifying the author’s classification of their bilateral relations there as a rivalry.
India must take three main steps in order to reach its intended strategic destination of exercising predominant influence over ASEAN and countering China:
* Initiate a breakthrough in bilateral relations with Bangladesh
* Secure the Northeast
* Stabilize Myanmar
Each of these steps is mutually inclusive and complements one another, and Modi is already making progress in the first two.
Here’s how India fares thus far:
Modi’s visit to Bangladesh was an absolute success for both countries, as they were able to finally resolve their 40-plus-year border dispute and enter into a mutually profitable coastal shipping arrangement. The mainland breakthrough secures their mutual border by finally delineating it and resolving the undefined status of around 50,000 people. With no more territorial issues between them, both sides can now enter into a golden age of economic and security relations, which will have an extraordinarily positive impact on India’s Northeast. As per the coastal shipping deal that was just clinched, India can now directly use Bengali ports to facilitate trade with its far-flung states, thus avoiding the vulnerable Siliguri Corridor that barely connects the region to the rest of the country. The cross-Bengali route enables it to tighten the central government’s control over the peripheral and separatist regions, and since Dhaka is now on board with India’s strategic goals, it could partake in cooperative operations with New Delhi to secure its side of the border in conjunction with any forthcoming anti-terrorist crackdown there.
India’s surgical strike in Myanmar shows that it has finally become serious about tackling the root issue of Northeastern security, which is the transnational incidence of violence there. Modi understands that India’s own provinces constitute an Achilles’ heel that could sabotage his Act East policy, and that without a solid domestic launching pad, his country stands no chance of successfully building connective infrastructure with Southeast Asia. This part of India has always been a security challenge for New Delhi, but faced with what was seen to be a more imminent threat from Pakistan, the military gave priority to the ‘western front’. Last December’s terrorist attack in Assam and the ambush last week in Manipur seem to have pushed India’s leaders past the edge, however, and they’ve now been forced into taking some type of military response to the eastern threat, whether they had previously wanted to do so or not.
Still, because of changing international considerations, India may possibly be able to ‘pivot’ its military focus from the west to the east. New Delhi and Islamabad are both slated to join the SCO next month, and this historic move could possibly lead to an eventual lessening of their bilateral tensions. In fact, given the importance of Northeast Indian security for New Delhi’s long-term strategy in ASEAN, it’s in the country’s best interests to ensure that relations with Pakistan remain stable so that it can better concentrate on the more pressing threat from the east. China’s vision in creating a $46 billion economic corridor between Pakistan’s Gwadar Port and Xinjiang Province could go a long way towards Beijing influencing Islamabad to maintain the ‘cold SCO peace’ with India and ensure that New Delhi can better handle its far-flung domestic terror threat and not look for provocations to destabilize China’s jaw-dropping investment in the west. China needs to buy time for the Gwadar-Xinjiang corridor to be built, and it’s betting that it can complete the project by the time India fully pacifies the Northeast and begins constructing its ASEAN highway.
This benchmark is one which is still a long time away from being reached, if ever, and India’s anti-terror strike may have conversely destabilized its neighbor even more. It will be discussed more in the forthcoming scenario forecasts, but for all intents and purposes, while India has its reasons for intervening in Myanmar, it may have upset the fragile truce underlying the tense balance in the country. Even if India is able to fully integrate the Northeastern states into its full-spectrum national economy, using Bangladesh as a bridgehead in doing so, it will be unable to construct connective infrastructure projects with ASEAN so long as Myanmar remains unstable. The only two things India can do to stabilize its neighbor are: solidly committing to a full-fledged joint military operation against all rebel groups there (close to impossible); or stay out of Myanmar’s domestic peripheral affairs (no matter how tempting or provocative the bait) and give full diplomatic and military material support to its government. Until Myanmar can be stabilized and its civil war be resolutely brought to a close, India’s physical influence in ASEAN will always remain tenuous without the international connective infrastructure to tether it to the region.
The Northeast Frontier
India’s gateway to ASEAN begins at its Northeastern states, colloquially referred to as the ‘Seven Sisters’. This distant region is a patchwork of different ethnicities, religions, and administrative boundaries, some of which don’t correspond to the most ‘advantageous’ alignment for stability. That is to say, there are overlapping conflicts between certain demographics and their perceived ethnic homelands which leads to an inherently unstable situation that’s ripe for eruption. 57 out of the country’s 65 officially designated terrorist groups are active in the Northeast, and they’ve been wreaking havoc on and off since India’s independence in 1947. The core of the terrorists’ complaints is that their respective ethnic regions were unfairly incorporated into India and should instead be granted independence. Other than the obvious security reasons for why New Delhi fights against the ethnic terrorists, another reason is more metaphysical, and it has to do with the entire legitimacy of India’s current boundaries.
Separatists in the Northeastern states believe that their respective areas were forced to sign instruments of accession that brought them into the Republic of India, and that the actual agreements are thereby voided due to their imposed nature. This dangerous line of thinking questions the very underpinning of many of India’s current territories, and if one separatist movement succeeds in its goal, then it could set off a domino reaction within its region, and perhaps even the country. This reasoning explains why India resorted to the extreme measure of using its air force against the Mizo National Front in 1966 after they overran Aizawl, which was the only time that India ever bombed its own territory. That drastic action speaks to the seriousness with which New Delhi takes separatist threats, so it should ultimately come as no surprise then that it would launch a special forces operation in Myanmar after suffering its worst ambush in two decades, especially against as strategically dangerous of an adversary as UNLFW.
While many ethnic groups inhabit India’s Northeast, four of them in particular are at the greatest risk of generating significant separatist violence:
The state of Assam used to be administratively a lot larger than its present-day form, having previously incorporated all of the Seven Sisters besides Manipur and Tripura. Ethno-political considerations led to New Delhi subdividing the state until it received its present form, largely as a means of placating the various minorities that agitated for independence. Some Assamese, however, have forcefully rejected the unilateral shrinking of their territorial boundaries and want independence in order to halt, and possibly even reverse, this process. The United Liberation Front of Assam is the most notorious of the Assamese terrorist organizations fighting for this goal, and it’s also one of UNLFW’s constituent members.
Located within the current borders of Assam is the Bodo ethnic minority, which has been fighting a vicious separatist war against both the local and national authorities since the 1980s. Some of its fighters want autonomy within Assam, some want a separate state within India, and still others aim for outright independence. Bodo terrorists were responsible for the late-December violence that killed over 75 people and caused tens of thousands to flee from their homes, and the author investigated this in detail in an earlier article written at that time. One of the forecasts made in the piece was that the various separatist forces active in Northeast India could temporarily unite in order to pursue their shared goal of secessionism, after which they could fight amongst themselves over the territorial details.
That’s precisely what’s happened with the creation of the UNFLW, since Assamese separatists have linked up with their Bodo counterparts (the National Democratic Front of Bodoland-Songbijit, which was responsible for December’s chaos) to wage a common war. On the surface, these two groups should be at eat other’s throats, since the Bodo want to secede from Assam while Assam wants to control the Bodo, but they’ve been able to put their bloodthirsty feud aside for the sake of joining forces in their shared fight against New Delhi. This testifies to the ideological fervor of their separatist beliefs, since they’re able to move past their on-the-ground ethnic and territorial conflicts in the name of achieving their common goal of independence. It also shows that their respective leadership recognizes the need to unite their forces against the shared ‘enemy’ of India instead of whittling them away in fighting against one another.
The next main separatist force in Northeastern India is the Naga. Terrorist groups such as the NSCN-K, one of the founders of the UNFLW, want to expand the borders of their current state to include all of their ethnic kin in the surrounding areas, including Myanmar, in a project that they term “Nagalim” or “Greater Nagaland”. Their predecessors were the first group in India’s Northeast to fight for independence in 1947, and the issue has thus formed one of the mainstays of regional destabilization. Some Nagas advocate a ‘soft secessionism’ whereby India is pressured into redrawing its internal boundaries in order to accommodate their designs on neighboring states, but New Delhi is absolutely opposed to this since it would lead to uncertainty, fear, and panic in the minority non-Naga ethnic groups and states affected. It could also create a perilous precedent for other ethnic groups’ demands, thus ushering in a never-ending cycle of administrative revisions that would ultimately lead to violence and actual secessionism (which is the NSCN-K’s end goal).
While no significant secessionist or irredentist groups exist for the Bengali minority in Northeast India, it doesn’t mean that they can’t quickly arise. As the author previous wrote about when discussing Bodo terrorism, there’s a strong concern among native ethnic groups in the region about Bengali migration, both legal and illegal. In some cases, the locals feel threatened by their large influx, and this at times takes on religious overtones of Islam versus Christianity (the latter of which many native people converted to during British rule). In the event that there’s a violent backlash against settled Bengalis in Northeastern India, they could potentially resort to social mobilization in lobbying Bangladesh for protection. Not only that, but some of them might even partake in terrorist action in order to push for unification with their home country. Additionally, if Indian Bengalis somehow form their own ethnic identity separate from actual Bengalis (such as Myanmar’s Rohingya have done), then the possibility is opened that they could seek autonomy or independence along the “Kosovo” model, further complicating the ethno-political mess in Northeast India.
However, these separatist scenarios are currently negligible due to Modi’s breakthrough visit to Bangladesh. By ingratiating himself with its leadership and resolving the territorial disputes between both countries, he’s all but guaranteed that Bangladesh would never support any of its ethnic affiliates in whatever secessionist schemes they might one day be hatching. But, if something unexpected were to occur that leads to a severe straining in bilateral relations, perhaps even a freeze or complete break, then it certainly remains within the realm of possibility that such measures could be contemplated by Dhaka. Still, it doesn’t appear like such a scenario would ever occur anytime soon, if at all, since Modi’s trip symbolically paved the way for a new era of mutual ties, and India acknowledges just how much it needs Bangladesh’s support in stabilizing the Northeast and opening the gates to ASEAN. This in turn makes it much more pliable in protecting the rights and safety of the Bengali minority in the Northeast (whether legal or illegal), and accordingly mitigates the risk of any international crisis breaking out with Bangladesh. Nonetheless, rampant and unrestricted Bengali migration into Northeast India could lead to spiraling tensions with the native locals (especially if New Delhi is seen as being biased towards them or turning a blind eye to the issue), which in turn could strengthen separatist sentiment and lead to the same cycle of violence that India is keen to avoid.
The ISIL Model In ASEAN
Having taken account of the three primary terrorist interests within UNFLW, it’s now time to explain how the group closely mirrors ISIL in its tactics and strategy:
Both terrorist groups unify their members under an umbrella ideology, with ISIL opting for a perversion of Islam while UNFLW uses left-wing separatism. Their ideologies aren’t without contradictions, of course, since ISIL fights against other extreme Islamic groups (such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban) and the UNFLW separatists (specifically the Assamese and Bodo) will inevitably clash with one another over their overlapping territorial disputes if they ever succeed in pushing New Delhi out of the Northeast.
Border And Governance Exploitation:
UNFLW exploits the weakness of the Indian-Myanmar border and nests itself in areas beyond the central control of Naypyidaw, mirroring what ISIL has done along the Syrian-Iraqi border in respect to both of those governments. Of course, the current situation in the Mideast is much more chaotic than that in Southeast Asia (by a long shot!), but the dangerous template of exploiting geopolitical lines and ungovernable territory to one’s advantage is clearly being followed by UNFLW.
ISIL expertly juggles unconventional and conventional warfare, mixing terrorist and insurgent attacks together with its utilization of conventional armaments and deployment tactics. UNFLW has yet to seize military hardware or bases from India or Myanmar, but it may realistically have access to standard military equipment and training regimens via the rebel pseudo-armies that it’s allied with in Northern Myanmar. Only time and combat experience against them can reveal whether they’re capable of waging a conventional war, but it must be assumed that they harbor at least some of these capabilities.
Wide Base Potential, Strategically Positioned Supporters:
UNFLW could potentially mobilize a base of over 22 million supporters, which is the estimated total number of Assamese, Bodo, and Naga in Northeast India. Not all of them would realistically support the separatist umbrella, but considering the large numbers at play here, and especially the fact that secessionist tensions have been ripe in this region for decades already, it’s likely that a sizeable proportion of the population would at least be sympathetic to their cause. In an area as geographically compact as Northeast India is, even a few thousand civilian supporters could make a noticeable impact in the group’s intelligence, infiltration, and insurgent capabilities.
ISIL, on the other hand, has a much wider intended support base (over one billion), but as with UNFLW, it’s impossible for them to ever reach it. Instead, as has been seen through their battlefield operations, scattered bands of supporters could play a pivotal role in the success of their offensives (as they did in Mosul, for example). The key is simply that their supporters are in the right place at the right time, and they’ve already demonstrated that they can pull this off. Thus, it’s not outside the ability of the UNFLW to do something similar if it ever intends to launch a hybrid offensive on Indian or perhaps even Myanmar territory.
ISIL and UNFLW have intimate territorial relationships that differentiate them from all other terrorist groups, in that they’ve demonstrated an ability to actually hold territory. ISIL does so with a lot more success (e.g. Mosul, Raqqa) than UNFLW, which has no known villages or towns under its control, but the fact remains that they do administer their own pseudo-autonomous area in Myanmar, and NSCN-K is a signatory party to the country’s tenuous nationwide truce. Furthermore, both terrorist groups strive for state-like legitimacy over their respective conquests, and UNFLW aims to establish a government-in-exile by November of this year. There’s no grounds to expect that they’ll be taken seriously at this point, but the significance in this step would be to solidify the unity between the UNFLW’s diverse members and underline their shared goal of separatism (by terroristic means). Just as ISIL has dreams of further territorial conquests past its current holdings, so too does UNFLW, and it’s expected that both terrorist groups will continue playing the ‘territorial card’ to their advantage for marketing and recruitment purposes (with UNFLW perhaps entering the social media sphere in the near future to assist with this).
Clash Of Interests
A triad of Great Power interests intersects in the confined area of the India-Myanmar border, and each actor has differing objectives, motivations, and apprehensions. When one includes Myanmar itself into the foray, a ‘quarrelling quartet’ of contradictory trajectories emerges:
Beginning with the country most adversely affected by domestic and foreign militancy (as well as the subject of the three Great Powers’ intrigues), Naypyidaw is in the midst of a very dangerous internal and external balancing act. On the home front, it’s struggling to manage an extraordinarily sensitive truce between the myriad rebel groups fighting against it. General elections are planned for early November, and Myanmar’s new Western partners will be observantly watching to make sure that it goes according to their subjectively determined expectations, and any internal turmoil prior to the vote could ‘discredit’ it or result in its delay. Both of these scenarios would see the West serve harsh rebukes and thinly veiled economic and political threats to Myanmar, which the country’s authorities are keen to avoid at this moment, thus bringing one to the topic of the international tightrope that it’s currently walking.
Myanmar used to be closely aligned with China during its ‘pariah period’ from 1989-2011, during which the West sanctioned the military-led government for its supposedly ‘undemocratic’ nature and sought to isolate it in all possible ways. This inevitably drove it closer to China, which never harbors any reservations about its potential partners’ domestic policies, and led to the development of extremely fruitful relations between the two. However, Myanmar may have moved too close to China in the sense that it entered into a visibly unbalanced material relationship with it that began to draw the locals’ ire. Citizens in the far-flung and rebel-influenced (and at times, rebel-held) territories became enraged that their material wealth was being exported in exchange for scarcely any compensation, thus generating a simmering social conflict that threatened to erupt into larger, perhaps militant, manifestations.
Especially offensive to many were Beijing’s plans for the Mysitone Dam, which would have flooded an area the size of Singapore in order to send electricity to China. The ‘transitioning government’, which had embarked on the symbolic road to an on-the-surface civilian administration in early 2011 (following elections in late-2010), saw the project as a severe vulnerable to stability during a rocky political period, hence it decided to halt it in September 2011. It was around this time that Myanmar also began making overtures to the US, which ultimately resulted in the West easing the sanctions regime that was put into place against the country. Obama made an historic visit in November 2012 that seemed to confirm the mutual acceptance of Myanmar’s pro-Western pivot, but it hasn’t been without its strategic risks, most notably the threat perception that China has experienced as a result of these sudden shifts along its southern border (to say nothing of the internal vulnerabilities, such as hyper-nationalist Buddhist thugs, that became exposed to increased Western manipulation).
Myanmar is currently in a state of limbo, both internally and externally, and this makes the country particularly unstable. Domestically speaking, the slightest provocation could relight the fuse of civil war, which might quickly spark a larger, all-out conflict. In the midst of its domestic political transition (if even in name only, although it has lifted the citizens’ bar of expectation for their government), Naypyidaw wants everything to proceed smoothly, and tumult in the regions could rapidly ricochet destabilization right back into the center, thereby undermining the situation throughout the entire country. On top of that, Myanmar has positioned itself between both the West and China, with a foot in each camp, and it’s unknown how long it can continue this uneasy balance. On the one hand, it’s sought to lessen its dependency on China, but it still fulfills a critical role for Beijing in providing a non-Malacca route for the latter’s oil and gas pipelines. As per the West, investment and de-facto ‘recognition’ have flooded into the country since 2011, but Myanmar’s new ‘partners’ haven’t fully removed their sanctions and are still making domestic demands against the country (notably concerning Aung San Suu Kyi and the Rohingyas). If something ‘goes wrong’ in the country’s publicized pro-Western pivot, then the sanctions could realistically be reimposed and the US could actively push for the Myanmar’s dissolution into a plethora of semi-functioning nation states.
The country’s presently precarious position and the colossal consequences at stake make one think that Myanmar may have inadvertently gotten into a situation where it’s no longer fully in control of its future, and that a wide range of state and non-state actors hold the real power instead.
The most important strategic task for India is to seek a middle ground between securing the Northeast and managing relations with Myanmar, but this is entirely easier said than done. Part I explored the security threats wracking Northeast India at the moment, and the conglomeration of terrorist groups via the UNFLW umbrella and their sanctuary status in Myanmar has infinitely complicated the situation. New Delhi is faced with the intractable conundrum of figuring how out to achieve its strategic task, and it looks as though it’s found itself in a classic dilemma. Engaging in cross-border military strikes against Myanmar-based terrorists could theoretically eliminate that present threat (if carried out to its fullest extent), but it would initiate a new one by disturbing the delicate equilibrium between the other rebels and the government there, or motivating reprisal attacks within Northeast India itself. At the same time, doing nothing might only embolden the terrorists into striking again, and they could also metamorphasize into a deadlier force if left uninterrupted in Myanmar (just as ISIL grew by exploiting its border safe havens in the Mideast).
Another prime consideration for India is how to preserve positive relations with Myanmar amidst all of this political and military dynamism. Even in the far-off event that the UNLWF and Myanmar’s rebels could both be neutralized and stability somehow restored to the mutual frontier, all of this would be for naught if Naypyidaw is no longer on good terms with New Delhi. For example, uncoordinated strikes on Myanmar’s territory during a protracted anti-militant campaign (whether unilateral or conducted jointly) could create a frightening security dilemma where Naypyidaw loses complete trust in New Delhi’s intentions and re-pivots towards Beijing in response. It’s not entirely unlikely, either, since if Myanmar’s military begins to perceive of India as an aggressive force behaving unilaterally (through go-it-alone strikes) or a destabilizing force that doesn’t respect its limits (engaging in overzealous, uncoordinated military activity that disintegrates Myanmar’s tenuous truce), then it would promptly pivot to China out of self-preservation, feeling that its sovereignty (and just as importantly, the rule of the military government) is critically endangered.
Without Myanmar’s full complicity, the ASEAN highway is doomed, however, there’s the slight possibility (however remote) than the myriad of nation-states that could emerge from the country’s dissolution might cooperate with New Delhi’s designs. But even if that’s their stated intent, the security situation might preclude its construction, and plus, the fact that the road would then have to transit a patchwork of states instead of just one makes it untenable and more easily subject to geopolitical blackmail.
Regional Trade And Strategic Security
More than anything, China endeavors to see Northeast India and Myanmar stable so as to facilitate the South Asian Silk Road via the BCIM trade corridor. Although these states also share in the same goal of regional stability, they may not necessarily be as enthusiastic about the BCIM as they’ve publicly let on. India could just be paying lip service to the idea in order to preserve a diplomatic face of cooperation towards China, while intending to leave Beijing out of the BIM framework. In fact, India is the leader of an alternative, competitive structure called the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Trade and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), which it can energize through the ASEAN highway in order to promote its non-Chinese economic vision in the region. India can’t ever entirely remove Chinese economic influence in Bangladesh, Myanmar, or Thailand, but what it can do is create the conditions for heightened competition with it that could potentially result in relative market setbacks vis-à-vis Indian inroads. India also shares much deeper civilizational bonds with these three states (and even Malaysia and Indonesia) than China does, meaning that it could potentially up the ante in its rivalry to asymmetrical, soft power levels in order to gain an advantage over its chief competitor in the region.
China can never replace the civilizational ties between India and ASEAN, but it can arguably best it on the economic front. In order to preempt India from becoming too strong of an economic rival, China needs to see to it that regional trading trends remain to its advantage, and that the disruptive threat posed by the ASEAN highway is neutralized one way or another. Should that come to be, and India must resultantly rely mostly on its emerging maritime trade network with the region, then China can rest assured that it will remain the most pivotal partner for mainland ASEAN for the indefinite future. As has been demonstrated over the past three decades, China can then transform the trading relationship it has with its partners into an intensified political one, which could tangentially be used to rebuff Indian influence along Beijing’s exposed southern flank and guarantee its strategic security. Thus, the most important Chinese objective vis-à-vis India’s Southeast Asian shift is to see to it that the ASEAN highway is never built.
Any discussion about China’s strategic security in ASEAN requires a complementary one about its need for legitimate buffers. While these could be asymmetrical in terms of trading arrangements (ergo China’s opposition to the TTIP) or political such as hosting ‘opposition’ leaders (like Aung San Suu Kyi’s big visit to China), this section of the article will only touch upon its geopolitical aspects. In general, China previously viewed Myanmar as constituting the critical component of its mainland ASEAN policy. The country was seen as a friendly neighbor, safe from the reach of Western influence, that could function as a strategic outlet to the open seas. A logical economic corridor could divert material and resource trade away from the potentially American-blockaded Malacca chokehold and therefore ensure a deeper level of Chinese strategic security. However, things didn’t pan out exactly as Beijing had anticipated, and due to the combination of Chinese overreach and Western wooing, Myanmar made the decision to decisively pivot away from its dominating neighbor while still retaining some forms of strategic collaboration with it.
Naypyidaw’s monumental move came as a shock to China, which in no way saw it coming (be it out of miscalculation or hubris), and Beijing has since then struggled to replace the international buffer that it has lost. Understanding that Myanmar’s choice is irreversible for the time being (provided India doesn’t commit a major strategic screw-up), China has come to terms with the fact that the Southeast Asian buffer which formerly blocked conventional Indian influence into ASEAN is long gone. Instead, Beijing has had to reconceptualize its idea of buffers from the state to sub-state level, whereby it now views certain areas within India and Myanmar as potentially fulfilling this role. It’s not to say that China is directly interfering in the domestic affairs of its two neighbors (as it has been accused of having previously done), but that it does have a strategic interest in seeing simmering tension prevent their full rapprochement (which would lead to the construction of the ASEAN highway and all of its negative economic consequences for China). Beijing’s ideal buffer thus extends from all of Northeast India down into the rebel provinces of Myanmar, thus forming a contiguous belt of eclectic ethnicities and religions.
Even with its reconceived buffers, however, China is cognizant of the unprecedented chaos that would erupt if this ‘Balkanized belt’ devolved into full-fledged violence, hence why it has no stake in exacerbating tensions between these entities and their central governments past the point of no return. China doesn’t want to see a chain reaction of actual secessionism along its borders that could endanger its own domestic security, as its only wish is to see low-intensity conflict impede the establishment of the ASEAN highway and strategic partnerships between India and its transit states. As such, China only shows implicit favor for legitimate buffers, meaning those which are not terrorist groups or have any real potential in actualizing their secessionist demands, but it must be noted that India’s definition of a terrorist group may not be shared by China, meaning that covert or diplomatic engagement with certain secessionist organizations in India’s Northeast might not necessarily be off limits for Beijing. In spite of this, China is expected to be against any organization such as the UNLFW that unites separatist-oriented groups, since this strategic convergence increases the chances of their success, and likewise, the probability of uncontrollable chaos along China’s borders (which Beijing in no way wants to see).
Washington has completely schizophrenic interests in this area, since it stands to win if either of the two main scenarios materializes. On the one hand, it intensely wants to see India ‘Act East’ along the ASEAN highway and fortify its BIMSTECS project against China, but on the other, it receives a Brzezinski-esque benefit from any potential ethno-political meltdown in Northeast India and Myanmar. To elaborate, it could weaponize the dissolution process in either of these two areas in order to threaten China and/or punish India (or keep it in unipolar check). Right now, it’s understood that the US is standing on the sidelines and monitoring the situation, intending to covertly intervene as necessary to tilt the course of events along its desired scenario, if need be.
Because it has no solid interests and can fluidly adapt to either circumstance with near-equal strategic benefit, the US is the most dangerous actor in this situation and the one whose reaction must be monitored most closely. In a sense, it holds the controlling influence over how events play out. It could support or discriminate between India and Myanmar’s respective (or even joint) efforts to combat terrorism and separatism, or it could actively encourage separatism in one or both of them. Another possibility is that the US stands idle and lets events develop ‘naturally’ for as long as possible. Either way, the US is the only one of the four actors that has the capability of redirecting events in near-limitless ways while remaining as insulated from their consequences as possible, thereby making it the most important (if geographically indirect) player in this unfolding conflict.
The Play Book
The UNLFW is the ‘perfect spark’ for setting off a larger conflagration, and with India have already attacked its positions in Myanmar (in what may or may not have been an unauthorized strike), it’s worthwhile to forecast the course of events that have been set into motion and analyze their influencing factors. Here’s what needs to be considered:
Unilateral Or Complicit Strike?
Did India attack inside Myanmar without informing Naypyidaw in advance (or at all) or did it do so with the full complicity of its authorities, no matter how plausibly they try to deny it? This is the key initial condition that dramatically sets the stage for everything else that follows.
Independent Or Joint Follow-Up Strike?
Will India follow through with its strike or was the earlier operation a ‘one-off’ instance? If it continues pursuing its military objectives, will it do so independently or in conjunction with Myanmar, and how far will it go? And in if India carries out operations on its own, will Myanmar be complicit in them or unaware?
How do the Indian terrorists and Myanmar rebels react to the first strike, and perhaps, any more that follow? Will UNLFW activate its Indian-based terrorist network to order more attacks, and could the Myanmar rebels fight back against any Indian and/or Myanmar government incursions in their territory? What impact would it have on the ceasefire?
3 Stages, 3 Scenarios:
Events along the Indian-Myanmar border are expected to follow a step-by-step progression in building up to the next scenario, although of course, any of the three steps/scenarios could potentially occur out of order:
India’s strike was an inevitable reaction to bubbling terrorist violence in the Northeast, but due to the latest attack having been the worst such ambush in 20 years, its security establishment felt compelled to do something significantly symbolic. The terrorists and/or Myanmar rebels aren’t baited into an emotional reaction, but instead bide their time and thoroughly plot their response. Tremors are felt, but no one knows when or where the next rumbling will occur (and whether it’ll be initiated by India or the terrorists). A nervous trepidation takes hold of all actors, although the Indian security establishment might have haughtily convinced itself that no prompt response by its adversaries indicates that it has won, in which case its guard will be lowered and the next terrorist attack will once more catch it unaware.
Some type of follow-up strike is commenced, be it by India and/or Myanmar or by the UNLFW and/or the rebels. The regional balance is threatened and a critical situation quickly develops. Global attention and apprehension is shifted to this relatively unknown corner of the world, with many voices raising fear that the violence can spread if it’s not immediately contained. A full-on earthquake has yet to occur, but the earlier trembling has now developed into a loud rumble, and everyone is waiting for what they believe to be an inevitable escalation. All active participants (e.g. India and UNLFW) brace themselves for conflict, while their immediate ‘dependencies’ (e.g. Myanmar and the rebels), if they haven’t already traded a follow-up blow with one another (as the other two opposing sides have done to get to this step/scenario), then they’re certainly preparing to in the event that they get sucked into a wider, forthcoming war.
India and/or Myanmar go on a substantial offensive against the UNLFW and/or rebels (or vice-versa), which opens up a Pandora’s Box of pandemonium. At this point, definitive forecasting is difficult to engage in, although for all intents and purposes, it can be assumed that Myanmar’s unity (already a geopolitical oxymoron of sorts) will be shattered, and that the consequent renewal of large-scale civil warfare in the country would create urgent security challenges for each of its neighbors. India may enter into an unsustainable military operation (much as the Saudis have done in Yemen) in which the only choices are between a bad conclusion and the worst conclusion (per its strategic perspectives). If India finds its mainland path to ASEAN stonewalled, then it’ll likely invest more in maritime capabilities in buffeting the ‘Cotton Route’, which could then enhance its medium-term capability in projecting sizeable influence in the South China Sea (alongside the US, Japan, and Australia). As such, the inadvertent facilitation of this formidable containment threat to China would herald in its own geopolitical earthquake, the aftershocks of which would be immensely destabilizing.
The Northeast Indian and Myanmar destabilizations have long become interlinked and transnationalized, but it was the creation of the UNLFW, ‘the secular ISIL’, and India’s cross-border attack against them that really brought the unstable nature of this region to the global spotlight. India was compelled to respond to the UNFLW in some form or another after falling victim to the largest ambush in two decades. . India needs the region to be stabilized in order to ‘Act East’ and counter China in ASEAN, but the irony is that it may have unwittingly set into motion uncontrollable chaotic forces in Myanmar that could result in the broader area’s intensified destabilization.
It’s not expected that the conflict potential between all actors will dissipate anytime in the near future – on the contrary, things seem to be just heating up. China has important security interests that are endangered by any violent escalations, but it’s realistically powerless to affect the flow of events and seems primed in being relegated to (proactively) responding to them as they develop. The US, on the other hand, is in the most powerful position vis-à-vis all the other actors, in that it profit from whichever course the conflict takes, be it an Indian-Myanmar success in squashing the terrorists/rebels (and the catapulting of India’s long-term, anti-China influence in ASEAN), or an all-out ‘Eurasian Balkans’ scenario that can chaotically suck in each of its neighbors. It’s unclear at the moment which of the two end-game scenarios is most likely, but it’s evident that New Delhi’s decision to intervene in Myanmar was a monumental one that marks a milestone in the region’s conflict dynamics, no matter how the situation ultimately turns out.