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Last Updated: 04/16/2013
Northeast India and Southern China: A point of conflict or of regional integration?
Hriday Sarma

Northeast India is a relatively secluded sub-state region that has of late started acquiring significance at the international level as a potential site of major conflict between China and India, or as a potential bridge between them.

Introducing the Research Problem

The Northeast frontier of India[i] is a landlocked region with a 2.62 hundred thousand square kilometer geographic area, 73% of which is included in the hill region and the remaining 27% included in the plain region.[ii] Presently, this sub-state territory of independent India is federally delineated under 8 major administrative provinces, which are nationally called states.

The Northeast region has historically been “the backyard” of the country.[iii] Until some time back it remained isolated due to a masterly-negligence policy pursued by New Delhi.[iv] However, of late this hinterland region has become a primary subject of India’s foreign policy formulation.[v] It is also getting due attention in India’s long-term[vi] and short-term[vii] national economic policies. India has internally upgraded the Northeast as a new strategic-pivot point in terms of national security[viii] and is externally trying to sell the idea that the region is a possible land-linkage between South Asia and South-East Asia.[ix]

The high politics of state survival from the standpoint of political realism

New Delhi has been the centre-of-gravity of mainland India since pre-colonial times in terms of the agglomeration of federal political institutions and administrative bodies,[x] and the degree of centralization within these federal power structures has only progressed with time. What we have today is a strong state that is highly centralized in New Delhi, which from time to time voluntarily disburses different degrees of powers to different sub-state administrative units according to the temporal needs of the state.

Interestingly, at present, the Northeast has a petite 25 out of the total 545 directly elected members in the Indian Parliament’s Lower House (Lok Sabha)[xi] and 14 out of the total 245 indirectly elected members in its Upper House (Rajya Sabha).[xii] These figures make explicit the feeble political sway that Northeast can possibly exert over the Central Government in New Delhi. Moreover, Northeastern states rarely speak with one voice because of intense bickering between them over different intra-regional issues.[xiii] This has incessantly persisted ever since the very region was formally incorporated with the mainland region at the time of India’s independence.[xiv] Also, the faraway geographical distance between the Northeast and the Centre was a major contributing factor for the region to be nationally considered a peripheral zone of the state. A general inference that can be made from this is that, within the Indian political-superstructure, the Northeast region lies at the base of the pyramidal structure, expected to dutifully follow the instructions passed-down from the apex point.

Currently, it is not the native population of the Northeast region that is endeavoring to break free from their historic relative isolation and embrace the outside world. Rather, it is Centre that is pursuing a national securitization strategy to elevate the geostrategic significance of this entire region to the level of a ‘strategically sensitive zone’. This is being done in consideration of China’s ever-growing assertiveness all across its near-abroad regions. Even today, China considers the whole of Arunachal Pradesh, which is one of the states within Northeast, as ‘South Tibet’. Since the last few years China has articulated its diplomatic contestation over the legal status of Zangnan (the Mandarin name for Arunachal Pradesh) in different international institutions. In 2009, China won a crucial vote in the Asian Development Bank against India's "disclosure agreement", which prohibits the ADB to fund any future development project in the state under India's responsibility.[xv] Furthermore, even today, China is not issuing visas to any Indian government official hailing from Arunachal for any official visit to the country and ‘stapled visas’ to non-officials from this contested province.[xvi] China’s position, therefore, is that the natives of Arunachal Pradesh are in fact citizens of China who do not require official entry visas for travelling within its sovereign territory.

Much of the Sinophobia in India emanates from the mega dams that China now yearns to activate on the highest river in the world, the Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo), which is also the lifeline of Northeast. For years, China has been nurturing plans of diverting high volumes of water from this river using the western route section of its South–North Water Transfer Project.[xvii] Since 2010, the groundwork is already underway on the 510 MW Zangmu dam. Moreover, China has officially approved the construction of three more hydro-power projects in the middle reaches of the river: Dagu damn of 640 MW capacity, Jiacha dam of 320 MW capacity, and Jiexu dam, the capacity of which is yet to be determined.[xviii]

These dams, upon completion, will pose as an acute existential threat to the downstream riparian regions, which includes the entire Northeast of India as well as Bangladesh.

image: The Hindu Business Line

This ongoing uncertainty presents India with no alternate choice other than building-up and upgrading an all-inclusive military infrastructure in the Northeast that will offer effective resistance to a possible Chinese military assault. In 1962, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) retreated after it had reached deep into Tezpur, a populous town in north-central state of Assam, for the fact that China was then not in a position to efficiently sustain the PLA’s lines of communication.[xix] However, today China has greatly fortified its position along its Southwestern flank by expanding a network of road, rail, and air links that connects its main cities to its border areas.[xx] Whereas, on the Indian side of the border there is as yet no single concrete highway that connects Guwahati, the major city of Assam and the gateway of Northeast, to any of the border points in Arunachal Pradesh.

The heightened Sinophobia that has of late gripped India has resulted in the rolling-out of many Central Government funded Special Area Programmes for the Northeast, like the Border Area Development Programme, the Hill Areas Development Programme, etc. However, in this process of infrastructure development in the region, the Centre is considering ‘securitized development’ as the basic premise for sustainable development. Hereby a befitting example is the proposed Trans-Arunachal highway, a 1811 km, two-lane, mega highway project,[xxi] except for the Bandardewa-Itanagar-Holongi stretch that will be four-lane.[xxii] The highway will connect Tawang in the Northwest tip of Arunachal Pradesh to Kunabari in the Southeastern end of the state and further run down to connect with the Bogi Beel bridge in Assam,[xxiii]which is likely to be completed by 2015, and will then be the longest bridge in the country.[xxiv] The highway will pass through mid-belt of Arunachal Pradesh and will inter-connect 12 out of the 16 district headquarter towns of the state.[xxv]

Regional economic integration and “modernity-globalization”

In order to balance the conceivable Chinese military threat over the Northeast, the Centre is endeavoring to open up previously sanctimonious state borders along Northeast with the objective of encouraging greater cross-border trade with India’s eastern flank neighboring countries. The Centre believes that a gradual easing of the border restrictions with its neighboring countries will tempt the foreseeable economic superpower, China, to give-up its ambition of a military seizure of the contested region one fine day in the future in lieu of the lucrative economic gains that it stands to accrue by participating in cross-border trade.

Currently, India has a few bi-lateral trade outlets with its neighboring countries to the east, like Nathu La border point with China, Moreh-Tamu border point with Myanmar,[xxvi] Baliamari – Kalaichar and Lauwaghar – Balat border haats, which are traditional weekly village markets, with Bangladesh,[xxvii]Apart from these trade outlets, India allows its local border-area populace to carry out limited cross-border trading, like trade along the Stilwell Road at Nampong (Arunachal Pradesh) near Pangsau Pass, between the people residing along the India-Myanmarese border.[xxviii] Other inter-state connectivity projects are on the anvil like the Kaladan Project, a 593 km long Transit Transport Project, which will connect the Eastern Indian seaport of Kolkata with the seaport in the Western Myanmar Rakhine state capital of Sittwe.[xxix] However, the Centre is keeping a close watch on the nature and volume of bi-lateral trade that is happening through India’s border along Northeastern region. This it will continue to do in the future, while it simultaneously promotes a progressive increase in the level of cross-border bi-lateral trade with neighboring states to the level of building a supra-regional multi-lateral trade complex with the Northeast as its epicenter.

The Northeast, with approximately 3.85 percent of India’s total population[xxx] and 7.9% of the total geographical area of the country,[xxxi] contributed a mere 2.39 percent of the total GDP of India in the financial year 2011-2012.[xxxii] Indeed, the figure has remained at less than 3 percent over the last many decades. According to the profit making rules of market economics, the aforementioned factual data qualifies the region as ‘unnecessary-baggage’ that India is haplessly carrying. It needs to scrape this relatively un-productive region for the rest of the market-economy to function in a robust manner and without having to bear the excessive burden of feeding the region with undue concessions.

However, the Centre is well aware of the enormous commercial value of the as yet unexplored natural resources in Northeast, like uranium reserves at the Borholla oil fields in Jorhat district,[xxxiii] shale-gas deposits in Assam-Arakan basin,[xxxiv] high-grade fossil limestone or 'nummulitic' limestone deposits of Assam and Meghalaya,[xxxv]Today, the business moguls of the mainland region of the country as well as international entrepreneurs are knocking at the doors of Centre to secure a stake in the Northeast resource pie. So, the fallacies of eggheads based at Centre to do away with Northeast, if at all, are tantamount to economic suicide on the part of India, even under the rules of market economics.

Today, a form of modernity-globalization[xxxvi] is sweeping around the world, and the Centre is pursuing a middle-path to deal with Northeast under the hitherto prevailing environment of dormant violence, which has occasionally erupted in the past. The Centre, on its own, is taking-up industrialization projects in the region that aim to generate social benefits for the native population, like employment insurance, education, etc. Also, it is allowing limited direct and indirect foreign investment to infusing venture capital in the region and encourage it to steadily integrate with the global financial system.

A point that needs further emphasis is that the Centre’s present pro-poor socio-economic policies and schemes for Northeast, as mentioned above, are allowing the native population of this relatively cut-off landmass a space to breathe in a suffocating external milieu. The natives have now started securing financial support in different forms, by engaging in limited cross-border people-to-people trade at a supra-regional level, which is gradually augmenting their meager level of sustenance. This process is a calculated maneuver on part of the Centre to enable the Northeast to relish the limited fruits of globalization.

Also, the Centre’s aforementioned strategy compliments the objectives of the local politicians of the region, who want to shore-up their support among the residing majority rural and urban-poor population. The overall plan is to create a win-win situation for the power holders at the Centre and in the Northeast, while leaving the natives of the latter to clamor among themselves for securing the residual gains from the situation.

Critical Theory: a possible rescue path for the Northeast

Until recently, the Centre, the powerful guardian of India, wherein diverse nationalities homogeneously domicile, had practically curtailed almost all socio-cultural inter-exchanges and economic transactions between Northeast and the geographically adjacent regions that presently lie within the sovereign territories of India’s neighboring countries. This, of course, implies the fact that the two aforesaid regions shared intimate socio-cultural affinity, political interactions, and economic exchanges in the past.[xxxvii]

However, the Centre has now changed its general strategy for dealing with the Northeast, seeking to bring it into the center of national geostrategic and economic realms. The Northeast itself is too weak to stay immune from the internal changes that the Centre is trying to push through. Neither is it strong enough to defend itself from external encroachment by sovereign powers if left unprotected by Centre, which goes contrary to the demand for secession from India by numerous militant organizations actively functioning in the region.

It is also worth mentioning that, in the future, an onslaught of excessive trade and commerce under an open-border regime will further deteriorate the aesthetic beauty of Northeast that has existed since people began to settle the area in distant prehistory. In order not to distort the historic identity of the Northeast, the Centre should discard its positive discriminatory policies and schemes towards the region, like categorization of NE states as Special Category States, etc.

The Northeast will genuinely benefit from the impending wave of globalization at its doorsteps only if Centre lets the region gradually integrate on its own with South Asia and Southeast Asia. While this process unfolds, the Centre must ensure that the region is able to sustain its innate identity, which is characterized by minimum internal clashes between the different indigenous (ethnic) groups that domicile the land. If the Centre continues to forcefully or tacitly coral the region in the future, this will yield similar results that the region witnessed over the second half of the 20th century: violent secessionist movements, widespread human trafficking, etc.

Furthermore, state (Centre’s) intervention should in no way mean bureaucratic service delivery for wielding centralized power in this hinterland region. Rather, the state needs to pursue a new operation style of functioning through which its activities endeavor to reinvent the traditional genius of the people of Northeastern region.[xxxviii]

The Northeast is not a monolithic entity; rather, it is a whirlpool of vagaries. It has long been witness to protracted socio-political conflicts, driven greatly by economic motives, between the different indigenous (ethnic) groups in their respective efforts to dominate one another. Today, the region needs the benign supra-governance of New Delhi (Centre) in order not to fall back into the vortex of previous conflicts. While at the same time, the Centre needs to take into consideration the extra-regional historic linkages of the region and thereby gradually subside the face value of India’s presently most revered colonial inheritance, i.e. the Westphalia-based concept of inviolable state borders.

Critical Theory seemingly provides an acceptable solution for the present and future predicaments of Northeast in terms of temporal morals and ethics of civilized humanity. However, this approach calls for the Centre to unload the powers that it wields over the region vis-à-vis a rising China, which has, over many centuries, practically adhered to the concept of “strategic frontier” theory- expanding or contracting borders according to national power projection[xxxix]. If the Centre practically pursues the Critical Theory approach to dealing with the Northeast then this is likely to endanger the relatively stable temporal global system of nation-states.


It is unlikely that the Northeast will be able to withstand the onslaught of globalization, given the momentum of trends such as human migration and technological development.[xl] It is most likely that the influx of cheap illegal immigrant laborers from Bangladesh to the Northeast, whose legal status of citizenship is at present reluctantly monitored by the locals, will one day become political-masters of large parts of the region. China, the next global superpower, is likely to point out its Tibeto-Burman/Mongoloid ethnic and cultural connections with several ethnic groups of Northeast[xli] and offer to assist them in resisting what they may see as Indian imperialism over the region. However, by then, the waves of globalization will have engulfed the Northeast and the people residing in the region, both natives and outsiders who have settled here, will be highly Indianized, i.e. deeply conditioned in support of India, and are likely to strive on their own in a globalized environment to assert their Indian-ness vis-à-vis the burgeoning extra-regional influences in the Northeast.

[i] The term “Northeast” frontier was first articulated by Alexander Mackenzie, an officer who served the British Crown in India. He held many positions during his Commissioned service, among which were Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal, Chief Commissioner of Burma, etc., which endowed him with sufficient practical knowledge of the region.

Mackenzie, A. (1884). History of the Government with the Hill Tribes of the Northeast Frontier of Bengal. Calcutta: Home Department Press.

[ii] Mandal, D. (2009). VAT and Unfair Tarde Practices- An Analysis. In Mandal, R. K. (Ed.). Value Added Tax in Northeast India: Issues and Strategies. Mittal Publications : New Delhi.

[iii] The British pursued limited administration of the Northeast frontier. Through-out the course of British rule in India, it remained a frontier region, and never constituent part of the mainland British India Empire. The Inner Line Regulations ensured that the hill regions beyond the plains of Assam were largely left to their traditional chiefs once they accepted British suzerainty. The princely kingdoms of Tripura and Manipur were treated as dependencies, remote controlled by political agents but not administered on an everyday basis.

Ibid at i

[iv] a willful negligence on part of the Indian Government to solve the problems besetting the Northeast for the last many decades.

Singh, T. K. (Ed.). (2008). Look East Policy & India's North East: Polemics and Perspectives. New Delhi: Concept.

[v] In India's Union Budget 2013-14 Finance Minister, P Chidambaram, has finally proposed to link Northeast India to Myanmar under the rubric of its Look East Policy. This policy was officially adopted In 1991 with the philosophy of achieving economic with the South-East Asia, however due to the many physical and technical barriers in this regard it was henceforth kept in a frozen state for long.

Full text Union Budget 2013-14: Read Finance Minister P Chidambaram's budget speech BUDGET 2013, (2013, Feb 28). IBN Live. Retrieved:

[vi] The “Peace, Progress and Prosperity in the North Eastern Region: Vision 2020"emphasizes on infrastructure development in the Northeast, connectivity of Northeast with the rest of the country, sector-specific and industry-wise national strategy to be followed to better integrate the region within the current globalized processes and contexts, etc.

Rao, G. M. (2008). Peace, Progress and Prosperity in the North Eastern Region, Vision 2020. National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, 13.

[vii] India’s Eleventh Five Year plan gave special importance to North East region, primarily issues relating to women, education and skill development.

Engendering the Eleventh Five Year Plan: Removing Obstacles, Creating Opportunities. (2008). National Alliance of Women, Ministry of Women and Child Development, UNDP, UNIFEM. New Delhi. Retrieved :

[viii] Indian Minister of External Affairs, Dr. Sashi Tharoor, reiterates the high ‘strategic’ significance of the country’s North- East region in India’s foreign policy.

Association of International Relations. (2010). From Land locked or Land Linked: North East India in BIMSTEC. Shillong, Meghalaya.

[ix] Ibid at vi

[x] See Capper, J. & Anon (1918). Delhi - The Capital of India. Asian Educational Services: New Delhi.

[xi] Lok Sabha (House of the People) Retrieved from :

[xii]General Information for Members of Rajya Sabha. Retrieved from :

[xiii] Sahni, A. (2002). Survey of Conflicts & Resolution in India's Northeast. Faultlines,12 (3).

Also See. Baruah, S. (2005). Historicizing Ethnic Politics in Northeast India In Phukan. G. (Ed.) Inter-ethnic conflict in NorthEast India. South Asian Publishers Pvt Ltd : Delhi.

[xiv] internal conflicts have been a permanent feature of the Asian political landscape since 1945, of which post-colonial India is no exception.

Chonzom, T. & Heimerdinger, P. Conflict in Northeast India: Issues, Causes and Concern. Heinrich Böll Foundation. Retrieved:

Also See. Id at xiv (Sahni, A.)

[xv] Samanta, P.D. (2009, Sept 18). China strikes back on Arunachal. Indian Express. Retrieved:

[xvi] Author has personally confirmed with concerned sources.

Also See. No visa for officials from Arunachal, stapled for non-officials: China. Indian Express. (2011, January 13). Retrieved:

[xvii] South–North Water Transfer Project is a multi-decade infrastructure project undertaken by China that aims to transfer extremely high volumes of water from the watery south to heavily industrious but arid north of the country. The Project has three sections of routes, namely Western route, Middle routes and Eastern route.

Nickum, J.E. (2002). A Brief Report on the Status of the South to North Water Transfer. United Nations: Human Development Report. Retrieved:

The second phase of this plan (i.e. the South–North Water Transfer Project) is to transfer the waters of various rivers in the south-west - the Yarlung Zangbo, the Lanchan River and the Nu - to the Yangtze, and then move the water further northward from there (finally connecting to the Yellow river). This large South-North Water Transfer" is sometime referred to as Great Western Route or the New Moon Canal Project.

Weiluo, W. (2006). Water Resources and the Sino-Indian Strategic Partnership, China Rights Forum,1. Retrieved:

[xviii] Krishnan, A. (2013, Jan 30). China gives go-ahead for three new Brahmaputra dams. The Hindu. Retrieved:

[xix] Ramdasani, A. (2012). Why China Went Back in 1962? Strategic Perspectives. Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulation (CS3), Unified Services Institution: New Delhi.

[xx] China has developed a network of internal highways and subsidiary/ feeder roads in the TAR to connect strategically significant border areas with India, Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan by means of motorable roads. It has developed 58, 000 road network in Tibet, including five major highways and a number of subsidiary roads.

Chansoria, M. (Summer. 2010). Trendlines in China's Infrastructure Development in Tibet. CLAWS Journal, pp.178-79.

[xxi] A Note on Trans-Arunachal Highway: Submitted to Secretary to Governor. (2008, March 13). Retrieved :

[xxii] Measures on to improve infra on Arunachal border: Min (2010, Sept. 10). Zee News. Retrieved :

[xxiii] Ibid at xviii

[xxiv] Patel, B. S. (2012, May 6). A long wait for longest bridge in country. Indian Express. Retrieved :

[xxv] Ibid at xviii

[xxvi] Mattoo, A. & Happymon , J. (2010). Shaping India's Foreign Policy: People, Politics, and Places. New Delhi: Har-Anand Publishers: New Delhi.

[xxvii] Trade in Border Haats across the border at Meghalaya between Bangladesh and India. (2011, July 1). DGFT PUBLIC NOTICE No.61/(RE 2010)/2009-14. Government of India, Ministry of Commerce & Industry, Department of Commerce. Retrieved :

[xxviii] Ibid at xv

[xxix] Oo, A. M. (2013, Jan. 23). Indian Look East Policy and the Kaladan Project of Western Burma. Mizzima. Retrieved :

[xxx] 2011 Census of India. Government of India. Ministry of Home affairs. Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner. Retrieved

[xxxi] Ibid at ii

[xxxii] GDP of States & Union Territories for FY2012. VMW Analytic Services. Retrieved :

[xxxiii] (2009) India's ONGC Limited Discovers Uranium Deposists During Oil Field Exploration in Assam

[xxxiv] Rao, V.K (2010). Potential Shale Gas Basins of India Possibilities & Evaluations. Paper presented at seminar of India Unconventional Gas Forum, New Delhi, India.

[xxxv] Holtec Consulting Private Limited. (Cons). Manufacturing of Value added products based on Limestone and Coal in Assam and Meghalaya. Retrieved from North Eastern Development Finance Corporation Ltd. website :

[xxxvi] ‘modernity globalization', which aims towards a universal culture, produces effects on dismantling national cultures and on creating forms of contradiction and conflicts, and hence on supporting a specific form of modernism.

Zayed A. (2003). Modernity Globalization and Dismantling National Cultures. The World of Thought, 1(32).

[xxxvii] The author while explaining the idea of shared history and regional interconnectedness points out that the Ahom rulers of Assam used to sent an annual "Peshkash" or tribute to the Dalia Lama based in Lhasa.

Mishra, S. (2008). Between Borders Writing Histories of Borderland Identities in Northeastern India. In Contested Space and Identity in the Indian Northeast. New Delhi: Academy of Third World Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia University.

Also see, Within the Indian sub-continent, the Neolithic culture of Northeastern India has no strict parallels within the subcontinent …Three characteristic features of the Neolithic culture in Northeast India viz. celt making traditions, Cord-impressed pottery, and rice agriculture, are more or less similar to the Neolithic cultures of East Asia and Southeast Asia…. Northeast India has the evidence of intermixing of the cultural elements due to the migrations of different peoples with different cultures in different times.

Hazarika, M. 2006. Neolithic Culture of Northeast India: A Recent Perspective on the Origins of Pottery and Agriculture. Ancient Asia, 1, pp. 25-44. Retrieved:

[xxxviii] Chakrabarty, G. (2008). Economic Policy and the North East Looking Beyond Neo-Classical Praxis. Pg-184. In Deb, B.J., Sengupta, K. & Datta-Ray B. (Eds.) Globalization and North East India. New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company.

[xxxix] Lin, C. (2011). China’s New Silk Road to the Mediterranean: The Eurasian Land Bridge and Return of Admiral Zheng He. ISPSW Strategy Series, 165, pp.1-23.

[xl] Globalization is embedded in evolutionary time. Taken in this sense globalization becomes a human species feature, part of its ecological adaptability and ability to inhabit all of planetary space.

Pieterse, N. J. (2012). Periodizing Globalization: Histories of Globalization. New Global Studies, 6(2, 1).

[xli] Ibid at xii

Hriday Sarma is a M.Phil Researcher at the Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millai Islamia University (New Delhi). He is presently acting as ‘Sp. Correspondent (South-to-South Development Cooperation)’ for Global South Development Magazine (produced by Silicon Creation- Finland) and ‘South Asia Coordinator’ for Association for Conflict Resolution (International Section), a U.S. based professional organization.