Naga rebels in Myanmar's northwestern Sagaing Region in October 2018. Photo: Facebook

China does not normally object when other countries trade with Taiwan as long as it is done on a private level. But when news reports began circulating about the possibility of an official Indian-Taiwan trade pact, China hit back via its mouthpiece media with unprecedented threats.

Long Xingchun, president of the Chengdu Institute of World Affairs, a think tank administered by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, wrote in the Chinese Communist Party-run Global Times on October 22 that “once a country wants to develop official trade ties [with Taiwan], it is by no means a purely trade issue.”

He followed with a stern if not ominous warning: “If India supports Taiwan secessionist forces, China and India will come to hostility, especially if the India’s moves (sic) force China to support secessionist forces in India as a countermeasure. Each would attack the weakness of the other.”

China views Taiwan as a renegade province and those who advocate for the self-governing island’s independence as “secessionists.”

The “secessionist forces” China may be “forced” to support in India would likely be ethnic insurgents in its volatile northeast, armed groups that previously received massive support from Beijing and which still are known to maintain low-level contacts with Chinese security services.

So is China truly contemplating revitalizing those insurgent links and leveraging them to destabilize India? What is known is that Paresh Baruah and other leaders of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) have for years resided in various towns near the Myanmar border in China’s western Yunnan province.

That is also the base for at least two ethnic resistance forces from Manipur, another restive state in northeastern India.

A cadre of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) stands guard at a camp near Amarpur in Tinsukia district, 600 kilometers from Guwahati, the capital city of India's northeastern state of Assam. Photo: AFP
ULFA cadres stand guard at a camp near Amarpur in Tinsukia district 600 kilometers from Guwahati, the capital city of India’s northeastern state of Assam. Photo: AFP

Those forces, in turn, are allied with the Khaplang-faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K), which draws most of its support from ethnic Nagas on the Myanmar side of the border, but also has a following inside Nagaland and Manipur in India.

For years, Naga, Assamese and Manipuri insurgents have been based in remote mountains of Myanmar’s northwestern Sagaing Region, from where they have launched raids into India and then retreated across the border beyond the Indian army’s reach.

Those cross-border raids were supposed to have ended when the Myanmar army, after decades of neglect and denial, finally yielded to Indian pressure in February 2019 and attacked and captured Taga, a sprawling camp in northern Sagaing where Nagas, Manipris and Assamese rebels had long been based.

But the rebels simply regrouped and launched more cross-border raids, one in Nagaland in May 2019 and another in Arunachal Pradesh in early October of this year. The insurgents are equipped mostly with arms that have been obtained by intermediaries from Chinese sources or the illicit arms market in Southeast Asia.

They are then transported through northern Myanmar to the camps along the Indian border. It would thus not be difficult for China to boost the number of arms it supplies through those already existing smuggling routes if it sought to support the “secessionist” forces vaguely mentioned in the Global Times op-ed.

The Nagas were the first ethnic minority in northeastern India to rise up against New Delhi, and they were also the first to receive Chinese support for their demand a separate homeland.

The Naga rebellion broke out in the mid-1950s and during the decade 1967-76, nearly 1,000 Naga rebels trekked through northern Myanmar to Yunnan, where they received military training and returned with Chinese-supplied automatic rifles, grenade launchers, mortars and pistols.

They were followed in the early 1970s by about 200 Mizo rebels who also were trained in Yunnan while a smaller group of Manipuri insurgents made it to Tibet, where they received military and political training.

The training and support stopped after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 and the rise of Deng Xiaoping, who was more interested in promoting trade than exporting revolution. Nevertheless, in the late 1980s, ULFA rebels attempted to reach China but ended up staying with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), a group battling the Myanmar military.

Map of India’s northeastern region in regional context. Image: Twitter

The KIA kicked them out after receiving promises of aid from India and the ULFA leaders retreated into China, where they stayed as “civilians” while their armed followers allied themselves with NSCN-K and were able to carry on their struggle from Taga and other bases in Sagaing.

The NSCN-K, which at one stage had a ceasefire agreement with India to enable it to take part in talks, was eventually banned by New Delhi in July 2018. An Indian government spokesman stated at the time that the NSCN-K had been “responsible for explosions, ambushes and bombings.”

However, the Indian government has since 1997 had a ceasefire agreement with another NSCN faction, labeled NSCN-IM after Isak Chishi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah, Nagas from Nagaland and Manipur respectively. Isak passed away in New Delhi in 2016 at the age of 87 while the slightly younger Muivah is 86 and in frail health.

Until the late 1980s, there was one NSCN with Isak as the chairman, Khaplang as vice chairman and Muivah as general secretary. But the Myanmar Nagas, led by Khaplang, eventually tired of being treated as serfs by their Indian cousins and drove them out of northern Sagaing.

The NSCN-IM was without a base area, and began operating through various NGOs in Southeast Asia with its leaders posing as representatives of “indigenous peoples.” But in the end, they had no choice but to enter into talks with the Indian government and a truce was reached.

Those talks and the 23-year-long ceasefire were supposed to lead to a final settlement to be signed this year. But then, in an interview published on the Indian website The Wire on October 16, Muivah declared that Nagaland — or a greater entity which he calls Nagalim and includes Naga-inhabited areas of Nagaland, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and parts of northwestern Myanmar — should have its own flag and constitution.

Muivah went on to say that “Nagas will never be part of the Indian Union nor will they accept the Indian constitution.”

It’s not clear what kind of backing Muivah may have for his rather bold demands, which no Indian government could possibly agree to. NSCN-IM’s soldiers, equipped mostly with wooden replicas of rifles, are now confined to “ceasefire camps” in Nagaland where they conduct exercises, pray to God (most Nagas are Christian) and play ball games.

In case the ceasefire breaks down, the NSCN-IM remains flush with funds because of extensive — and widely unpopular — unofficial taxation of people and businesses in Nagaland and Manipur. But still it lacks cross-border sanctuaries and once Muivah is gone there is no successor with the same stature in Naga society.

General Secretary of the NSCN-IM Thuingaleng Muivah addresses the 68th Naga Independence Day celebrations at the council headquarters in Hebron in the northeastern state of Nagaland, August 14, 2014. Photo: Caisii Mao/NurPhoto via AFP

On the other hand, the NSCN-IM is believed to have been behind an ambush on October 21 in Arunachal Pradesh, a state not covered by the ceasefire agreement. A soldier from the paramilitary Assam Rifles was killed in the attack, which was launched in Tirap, a district bordering Myanmar.

Whether that was an attempt by NSCN-IM to show that it still has real military muscle or was a decision taken by a local commander is impossible to say. But if China really intends to act on the tacit threat made to support “secessionist forces in India” it would make more sense to funnel arms to the NSCN-K, ULFA and the Manipuri groups than the NSCN-IM.

Only time will tell if China intends to act on its threat, which if so would open a sort of proxy front as the two sides face off over territory in the western Himalayas near Ladakh.

While the opinion expressed by a representative at a Chinese state-backed think tank is not official policy, Global Times would never be allowed to publish an op-ed that completely contradicts its official position.