So why the tight relations between China and the NSCN-IM? One factor is said to be the revelation that China had agreed to host a permanent NSCN-IM representative based out of Kunming, Yunnan Province, in 2008. According to Shimray, Muivah had written a letter to senior Chinese intelligence officials to formally appoint Kholose Swu Sumi, a 60-year-old member of the Sema tribe of Nagaland, as the permanent representative of the NSCN-IM in China, which the Chinese accepted. Kholose is said then to have become the key point man for the NSCN-IM in China, meeting regularly with Chinese officials to keep them apprised of peace talk developments in India and relaying information from NSCN-IM operatives about the Indian army along the Sino-Indian border.
Kholose, who was reportedly the owner of a precious stones business, received Shimray and his wife at Kunming airport on a visit and introduced him to several Chinese intelligence officials, including a man by the name of Mr. Chang, the head of intelligence of the region in Dehong Prefecture in Western Yunnan. Shimray also apparently met with Lee Wuen, head of intelligence of Yunnan Province, to relay the message that the NSCN-IM wanted their assistance and cooperation.
There are several possible motivations for China supporting the NSCN-IM beyond just arms sales. For one, Nagaland straddles Arunachal Pradesh, an area over which both China and India claim sovereignty. For decades, the two militaries have been involved in a cat-and-mouse game along this sensitive border area, each trying to stake a claim along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). By infiltrating an area of strategic sensitivity for India, China could be aiming to secure a bargaining chip in border negotiation talks. Moreover, China is increasingly wary of India’s rise and larger geostrategic intentions as a peer competitor. Thus, Naga rebels offer China a convenient counterweight to India’s efforts at consolidating power and governance in northeast India, giving Beijing the ability to frustrate and distract New Delhi as it struggles to rein in the various insurgent groups that have proliferated inside its borders.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
This is of particular importance now as the two countries continue to try to resolve their border dispute. Since the early 1990s, Beijing and New Delhi have been locked in seemingly intractable border negotiations that have become something of a litmus test for whether the two aspiring powers can cooperate. If the claims of arms sales to the NSCN-IM in return for intelligence gathering of Indian troops turn out to be true, New Delhi can justifiably argue that Beijing isn’t conducting border negotiations in good faith.
The scope and scale of Chinese ties with the NSCN-IM should give New Delhi pause as it pursues closer relations with Beijing, because they could imply a willingness on the part of Chinese intelligence to covertly undermine peace negotiations between the NSCN-IM and the Indian government while simultaneously acquiring potentially useful information about Indian troop movements along the Sino-Indian border.
Until recently, it appears that China was able to surreptitiously sell arms to insurgents, exchange funds through neutral countries and plead plausible deniability when Indian authorities investigated such dealings. Beijing would simply say the weapons were procured from unscrupulous Chinese weapons manufacturers on the black market with links to rebel groups in Pakistan, Burma, or Bangladesh, thereby disavowing any direct knowledge or involvement. Shimray’s revelations, if proven true, would certainly make any such subterfuge far more difficult.
Lyle Morris is an independent China analyst. His work has appeared in publications including China Brief, YaleGlobal Online and China Economist.