The recent summit meeting in New Delhi between Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh resulted in the usual communiqué rhetoric about seeking a peaceful resolution to previous hotly-contested border issues, including the increasingly vexing issue of transnational rivers. Chinese and Indian plans for river projects are increasingly addressing the realization that the Himalayan glaciers, upon which 1.3 billion people in India, China, Bangladesh, and the small Himalayan states depend for water and hydroelectric power, are rapidly disappearing.
Li, on his first foreign trip as premier, quoted a Chinese proverb in addressing Chinese cooperation with India over border and water issues: «a distant relative may not be useful as a near neighbor». However, when countries with competing national interests find their access to life-sustaining water resources is at stake, neighbors, especially two that have warily eyed one another’s intentions for some six decades, can easily revert to their roles as traditional enemies.
There are increasing signs that amid all the niceties exchanged between Li and Singh in New Delhi and considering the fact that the two emerging world economic powers are both members of the Brazil - Russia - India - China - South Africa economic alliance, there is a changing dynamic in the entire Himalayan region that suggests a military confrontation between the world’s two most populous nations is not outside the realm of possibility. In fact, it is a distinct probability.
In the intelligence community, events, some based on intelligence information, are known as «indications and warnings» and are used to predict future events. Some of the events are, by themselves, fairly innocuous, and by themselves, may not amount to much. However, when combined with other information and events these «indications and warnings» or I&Ws paint a larger picture of the forces and interests that are lurking behind the scenes.
In the Himalayan region, the clever use of «scouts» by India and the redeployment of Chinese People’s Liberation Army troops along the massive Himalayan range are I&Ws being monitored by Western intelligence services having a stake in what occurs on the Indian sub-continent.
India is expanding the presence of «scout» units along its Himalayan border with China. However, these scouts are not teenage youth on camping trips looking for merit badges. Rather, these scouts are specialized units fully integrated into the Indian army in a manner reminiscent of India’s British colonial past.
On May 24, India’s Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, Lt. Gen. S.K. Singh, who also wears the hat of the «chief of the Gurkha Brigade,» presented the new flag of the Sikkim Scouts to the unit’s commander. Over 300 Sikkimese recruits for the Sikkim Scouts were present at the ceremony in Lucknow. Sikkim was once an independent country but it was invaded by Indian troops in 1975 and incorporated into India as a state. China has never fully recognized the incorporation of Sikkim by India. The Sikkim Scouts, after their training, will be deployed to the Sikkimese border with Tibet, already the most heavily-guarded border in the world.
In 1965, India and China fought a border war after China demanded India withdraw its troops from the Nathu-La and Jele-La passes on the Sikkim-Tibet border. Ever since, both sides have maintained a huge military presence at the passes.
The creation of the Sikkim Scouts is part of the Indian Army’s «Sons of Soils» program, which has created military units composed of peoples native to the Indian border region with China. The idea behind the units is that peoples native to the regions will be supported much more by the local population than outside Indian troops who are often seen as «occupiers». This is especially true in Sikkim where the heavy Indian Army presence is resented by the locals, especially by the Bhutia and Lepcha Buddhist minorities which still harbor nascent loyalty to the ousted Sikkim monarchy.
However, Sikkim’s dominant Nepali majority is also seen by India as a potential problem with calls by some Nepalis in Sikkim for a union with their Nepali brethren to the west in Nepal.
In the western Himalayas, China does not recognize India’s Johnson Line of Control that incorporates Aksai China into India. India, as part of its «Sons of Soils» program has dispatched the Ladakh Scouts, also known as the «Snow Warriors,» the oldest of the scout units and mostly Buddhists who are loyal to the Tibetan Dalai Lama, to maintain India’s presence in the rugged high altitude region.
On April 15, PLA troops crossed the Johnson «actual line of control» and were first met by India’s first line of defense, the Indo-Tibetan Police Force. Soon, the Indian ranks were supplemented by the Ladakh Scouts.
The Ladakh Scouts are assisted by the primarily Hindu Dogra Scouts of Jammu and Kashmir who keep a wary eye not only on China but also on the forces of China’s traditional ally, Pakistan, which does not recognize India’s incorporation of primarily Muslim Kashmir as an Indian state.
To the east of Kashmir and west of Nepal, lies Uttarakhand, where the Garhwal Scouts and Kumaon Scouts maintain vigilance on the Uttarakhand-Tibetan border. Uttarakhand, like neighboring Nepal, is primarily Hindu but the Indian border state and western Nepal have a significant Muslim majority.
China also rejects India’s eastern Himalayan line of control, known as the McMahon Line. In this region, India has deployed the Arunachal Scouts.
India is increasingly worried about Chinese intelligence activity among Buddhist monks operating in the border regions. Although many of the Buddhists are loyal to the exiled Dalai Lama of Tibet in Dharamsala, India, China sees some Buddhists as potential Chinese allies in a continuously- fluctuating political situation in the region.
In addition to the «Sons of Soils» operation, India’s Home Affairs Ministry is instructing its Sashastra Seema Bal, the Armed Border Service, to keep an eye on the activities of Buddhist monasteries in the region. In addition, the Home Affairs Ministry’s Border Security Force is being used to supplement the army’s Assam Rifles on the India border with increasingly-restive Myanmar, where Chinese agents have close contact with northern tribes, including the Karen, Kachin, Shan, Chin, Wa, and Mon. India’s Naga Regiment, made up of ethnic Nagas from secessionist Nagaland in eastern India, also maintain tabs on Chinese activities near the Indo-Myanmar border.
India’s Special Frontier Force, which falls under India’s external intelligence service, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), is made up of Tibetan refugees and is used by RAW to not only keep a watchful eye on Chinese movements along the Indian-Chinese border but is also known to deploy covertly into Nepal to watch the Chinese from the Nepali side of the border with Tibet.
India’s Sunday Standard recently reported that Indian security and intelligence agencies are wary of Chinese activities among Buddhist enclaves, including cave monasteries, in the border region with Chinese Buddhist monks very willing to hand out FM radios, give free Mandarin lessons, and provide food-for-work aid to local Buddhist villagers. There has also been an increase in Tibetan refugees flooding into Nepal through the former princely kingdom of Mustang along the Nepali-Tibetan border. Indian intelligence is suspicious because Nepal, which has been governed sporadically by a Maoist government, is said to have cracked down hard on Tibetan refugees entering Nepal. However, many of the Tibetan «refugees», including those who have joined Buddhist monasteries along the Indian-Bhutan border, are pro-Chinese and speak Mandarin, which has New Delhi on edge.
India is also wary of calls in an increasingly fractured and Balkanized Nepal for a «Greater Nepal» encompassing current Nepal, Sikkim, and Darjeeling. There are also calls within Sikkim for a «Greater Sikkim,» encompassing the traditional Bhutia-led Kingdom of Sikkim that once included Sikkim and Darjeeling. Adding to the mix, are calls for an independent Gorkhaland, or, at least, a Gorkhaland state that would extend from Darjeeling eastward to include the territory south of the Indian-Bhutan border. Some Indian intelligence analysts fear that the groups calling for new countries, borders, and Indian states are being manipulated behind the scenes by China.
The I&Ws are clear and American intelligence is paying attention. U.S. Special Forces, along with those of Britain, Israel, and France, are increasingly seen at the Indian Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School in Vairengte in Mizoram in eastern India. The CIA is reportedly recruiting agents from among thousands of ethnic Nepali Hindu Lhotshampa refugees originally forced from southern Bhutan to refugee camps in Nepal and subsequently resettled in the United States. These refugee agents are able to integrate themselves into the ethnic stew of the Himalayas and report intelligence to the large CIA station at the U.S. embassy in Kathmandu. And young American men with military-style haircuts have been seen with their American families on the streets of Gangtok, the Sikkimese capital, which is a short drive from the heavily-garrisoned Nathu-La pass…