by Andrew Korybko

India conducted a special forces operation against Myanmar-based terrorists responsible for a recent attack.

Showing its renewed resolution in combating all forms of terrorism, India recently launched a precision operation against Myanmar-based terrorists, killing over 100 of them. The operation was in response to a surprise ambush earlier this month that killed 18 soldiers in the Northeastern state of Manipur. This corner of the country has long been a hotbed of separatism and terrorist activity, and the various fighting groups active in the area have occasionally taken advantage of their neighbor’s internal woes to exploit it as a base of operations. In fact, there’s an implicit alliance between them and the Myanmar rebels, as the anti-India groups wouldn’t be able to use their counterpart’s territory without their consent.

India is actively looking to expand its influence in Southeast Asia via its invigorated Act East policy, but it can’t properly proceed until the Northeast is pacified and Myanmar is stabilized. Ironically, by targeting Myanmar-based terrorists, India might unwittingly perpetuate the same never-ending cycle of destabilization that it had initially sought to avoid.

Umbrella Separatism

The National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) was behind the unexpected attack in Manipur, but they’re actually part of a larger and newly created umbrella organization of terrorists called the United Liberation Front Of West South East Asia (UNLFW). This group brings together three of the most dangerous separatist movements in India’s Northeast – the National Liberation Front of Assam (NLFA), the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), and the just-mentioned Naga group, each of which wants to violently carve their own independent nation-state out of the Republic of India and is categorized as a terrorist group by New Delhi. S. S. Khaplang, the founder of the NSCN-K, is reportedly the ringleader of the UNLFW, and it was allegedly his idea to create the organization (the third of its kind).

This union of separatists-terrorists is exceptionally dangerous for India, since it shows that its disparate groups (some of whom have overlapping territorial claims on the other, as is the case with the Assamese and Bodo) can put their conflicts aside for the time being and work together in achieving their grand goal of separatism via terrorism. New Delhi’s military response to the UNLFW shows that it understands the threat that the nexus of unified separatist-terrorist movements, ungovernable border-region safe havens, and allied foreign rebel organizations poses to its sovereignty and security, but most importantly, it also demonstrates just how serious India is about redirecting its strategic focus towards the gates of Southeast Asia.

More ASEAN, Less Pakistan

Up until now, India’s security doctrine has been dominated by Pakistan, but its latest military moves in Myanmar are indicative of a strategic shift. Of course, Islamabad will perpetually remain as New Delhi’s primary security consideration, but with both Pakistan and India slated to join the SCO next month, it’s expected that a sort of ‘cold peace’ may finally settle in between them. This is despite the Indian Defense Minister hinting that the Myanmar operation could be repeated against Pakistan-based terrorists in the future, and Pakistan’s Interior Minister forcefully proclaiming that “Pakistan is not Myanmar” in response. Such statements should be seen as nothing more than grand posturing by both sides, as it’s extremely unlikely either of them would risk a conventional (and possibly, nuclear) war at this time.

The main reason for this is the China factor, since Beijing wants to safeguard its $46 billion Pakistan-China Economic Corridor project while New Delhi wants to focus is strategic attention on competing with China in its own Southeast Asian backyard (a symmetrical response to China’s ‘String of Pearls’ inroads in the Indian Ocean). In the forthcoming expanded SCO framework, Russia can help restrain India against Pakistan, while China can do the same for Pakistan against India, thus mitigating bilateral tension between the two South Asian antagonists and enabling both to concentrate on their respective economic visions (Pakistani integration with China, Indian integration with ASEAN) instead of mutually assured destruction.

India has just upgraded its Look East policy to one of Act East, which embodies an unwavering commitment to expanding its full-spectrum partnerships in that direction. While the inauguration of a BCIM trade corridor between Bangladesh, China, India, and Myanmar is the best-case, all-win scenario, it seems more likely that India will try to exclude China from this format and spearhead its own bilateral trade relations with the other two members. Modi’s breakthrough visit to Bangladesh essentially achieves this and helps strengthen New Delhi’s position vis-à-vis securing and developing the Northeast. As regards Myanmar, India wants to use its territory as a connecting bridge between it and the rest of mainland ASEAN, seeking to build a highway from Northeast India to Thailand and physically link its gargantuan economy more closely with the dynamic trade bloc. In order to fulfill this vision, however, India needs to simultaneously secure its Northeast and stabilize Myanmar, but it may have unintentionally exacerbated the latter’s difficulties through its supposed unilateral intervention in achieving the former.

Whacking A Hornet’s Nest

India claims its operation was conducted in Myanmar, with sources conflicting over whether Naypyidaw was informed before or after, but its counterparts allege that no such mission ever took place in their country, and was instead carried out in India’s own border region. No matter what the truth really is, Myanmar’s statements indicate that it is trying to carefully tread the tenuous truce that’s been keeping the country relatively stable in the run-up to the November general elections, and the NSCN-K just happens to be one of the many rebel signatories to that agreement. While Naypyidaw has a deep-seated interest in rooting out all rebel forces (it’s been fighting for over 60 years to do just that), it’s reluctant to rock the boat and risk a full-fledged resumption of civil war at this decisive moment, all for the sake of satisfying India in eliminating one of its enemies, which, it must be underlined, is a truce signatory preserving the very fragile peace.

Myanmar’s fear is that the NSCN-K could call upon its network of rebel alliances within the country to help defend it against any attack by the government, as not only would the military’s moves be a violation of the ceasefire, but the other rebel groups nesting in the staging area also stand to lose if Naypyidaw reestablishes control over the region (perhaps with Indian support). On the Indian side of things, the NSCN-K could activate its umbrella terrorist network inside the Northeast to wage a prolonged ethnic-based terrorist campaign, the effect of which would be to stunt New Delhi’s shift to ASEAN and embroil it in a dirty domestic war. Thus, India is mired in a strategic Catch-22, whereby its Act East policy dictates the need to secure the Northeast and stabilize Myanmar, but fulfilling the former comes at the expense of the latter, which circularly negates any prior achievements through the expected explosion of violence and refugee flows. New Delhi is betting that none of this will transpire, but given the circumstances, it’s a risky gamble to make, no matter India’s legitimate right in responding to terror.

The Essential Saker: from the trenches of the emerging multipolar world