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Indian Army chief calls for renewed focus on Northeast amid ‘rising footprints of China’

DEFENCE-India-13-02-2021

Army chief Gen M.M. Naravane Friday red-flagged India’s “delivery deficit” on promises made to other nations on regional connectivity, and said the ongoing security dynamics across borders calls for a review and renewed focus on the Northeast amid China’s increasing influence in the neighbourhood.

He underlined that the regional security environment is characterised by Chinese belligerence in the Indo-Pacific, its hostility towards weaker nations and relentless drive to create regional dependencies through initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 

“The resultant Sino-US rivalry has created regional imbalances and instability,” he said, addressing a seminar at United Services Institute, a think-tank. “The rising footprints of China in India’s neighbourhood and its attempts to unilaterally alter the status quo along our disputed borders have created an environment of confrontation and mutual distrust.” 

Noting that India’s traditional long-term partner Nepal has witnessed heavy Chinese investment and is going through a period of political volatility, he said while Bhutan has been cautious in its approach, India has seen an upswing in its relations with Bangladesh.

The ongoing dynamics in these neighbouring countries directly impacts the security environment in India’s Northeast, he said, adding that a large number of initiatives are already under way to leverage military diplomacy with Eastern Command playing the spring-board for fostering stronger bilateral relations. 

“Regional and internal connectivity is acutely linked to security. It is central to unleashing the potential of the Northeast and balancing the influence of China,” Gen Naravane said. “With failure to deliver on promises, delivery deficit has plagued our efforts at improving regional connectivity. The Kaladan Multimodal Transport Project and the Trilateral Highway have both seen cost and time overruns.”

He said the impact of the pandemic and the ongoing security dynamics across our borders have brought about significant changes in the geo-strategic construct. “It is in this evolving environment that a review and renewed focus on India’s Northeast is in order,” he said.

Calling for an apex body to coordinate multi-agency efforts, Gen Naravane said on the internal front too, infrastructure development has been marred by numerous challenges. 

“Multiple agency involvement and varied sources of funds coupled with environmental factors remain major stumbling blocks,” he said.

Army is realigning itself in the Northeast 

The general said a realignment of the counter insurgency (CI) or counter terrorism (CT) strategy has been under way in the Northeast.

He said force calibration with gradual disengagement from CI and CT operations has resulted in greater focus towards the northern borders and the India-Myanmar border. 

“The force calibration has already resulted in disengagement of 14 Infantry Battalions. Two division headquarters, earlier part of the CI grid, are now solely focusing on their operational role along the northern borders,” he said. “This has been a significant achievement. The operational responsibility of these areas has now been taken over by the Assam Rifles.” 

The Army chief said a common thread that runs along the Northeast states is a lack of coordination among various agencies. 

“The policy disconnect is further accentuated by the feeling that affairs of NER (Northeast region) are being run from Delhi. Most of the CAPF and central agencies are headquartered at Delhi,” he said. “National priorities, political compulsions of the states and local aspirations are seldom aligned, creating dissonance in execution.”

Pointing out that another distinctive factor that reinforces the feeling of alienation among the people in the Northeast is the “dismissive, sometimes indifferent and often contemptuous approach”. 

“You would often hear the need to integrate the NE with mainland India. The perception that India is the mainland and the Northeast must align itself to the ways of the mainland, in itself is flawed and contemptuous,” he said. “Another everyday example is when the newsreader during the weather forecast usually dismisses the entire region of nine states by a cursory ‘aaj poorvotar rajyon mein adhiktam taapmaan…rahega’.”