In 1962, China and India were at war. The conflict was a territorial dispute about two portions of the border: the Askai Chin in the western part and the Arunachal Pradesh eastward. India considered these areas as part of its national territory due to the frontier legacy of the British Indian Empire. China, one its hand, rejects the legitimacy of these “colonial” plots and believes that the two areas are an extension of its regions of Tibet and Xinjiang. Winning the war, Beijing had imposed its sovereignty over Aksai Chin while withdrawing troops from Arunachal Pradesh, allowing New Delhi to re-establish its authority. Since then, the status quo prevails but the dispute keeps poisoning the bilateral relationship of the two asian giants.
Territorial tensions: towards a peaceful border?
In September 1993, China and India signed an agreement “to maintain peace and tranquillity” along their disputed Himalayan border. This agreement between the two Asian giants – which required both sides to respect the Line of Actual Control (LAC), that is to maintain the status quo pending a peaceful, final boundary settlement and to reduce military forces along the border in accordance with the principle of “mutual and equal security” – has been described as a “landmark agreement” and “a significant step forward” in their uneasy relations since the 1950s.
However, incidents might still occur within the border. In April 2013, in the border between the Chinese Tibet and the Indian Ladakh, an incident happened between the two. In April, around 50 soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army entered in a territory the Indian considers their territory. Chinese militaries established a camp of about 5 tents whereas the Indian soldiers established their position about 300 meters away. The face to face lasted about 3 weeks and stopped in May, when an agreement has been signed by both parties, requiring each side to withdraw from the disputed area. Hence, this Himalayan region seems to remain a source of unsolved tension between India and China.
In the South China Sea (SCS), the rivalry between India and China is also a current issue. Indeed, SCS is a multi-party maritime dispute involving China, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. Of the 3.5 million sq. km. area of the SCS, almost 70 per cent is disputed. Even though India does not claim any of the islands of this area, India, under Vietnam’s request, explores oil within the region. China opposes this oil exploration in the SCS) by calling the area of exploration a ‘disputed’ area and asserting ‘Chinese sovereignty’ over the SCS. It has been continuously expressing its reservation in this regard in the last few years. India has taken note of the Chinese reservation and has carefully gone ahead in signing a few agreements with Vietnam for oil exploration in the SCS.
These tensions over the SCS seem to be not only about oil but also about influence within the region of South East Asia. China is in conflict with all the other parties involved in the SCS and numerous incidents happen with ships and fishermen boats within this region. India, on the other hand, seems to use this conflict to enhance its influence by supporting China’s rivals in the SCS. In addition, India is able to send warships into the South China Sea and that can make China nervous.
Sino-Pakistani relations: a source of tension
The cooperation between China and Pakistan is another source of tension and of preoccupation for India. Indeed, Pakistan is the historical rival of India and the territorial dispute over the Kashmir region has been unresolved for the last half century.
Started in 1962, China and Pakistan got closer whereas Pakistan was the historical rival of India. In 1963, both countries signed a Border Agreement. The cooperation is deep and various: for example, the Pakistani army’s equipment is 60% Chinese. Also, China is currently engaged on a variety of investment projects and infrastructural building activities in the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), and these will be expanded under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project.
Hence, Chinese officials call their investment and activities in POK as ‘livelihood project’; not being ‘political’, they are just ‘commercial’ in nature. Until now, China has maintained a ‘neutral’ position on the Kashmir dispute in recent times, particularly after the Kargil conflict, terming it as a ‘bilateral historical dispute’ between India and Pakistan. China’s presence in PoK has emerged is an issue between India and China. China’s massive commercial presence in PoK through CPEC would render China’s formal neutrality over the Kashmir issue irrelevant.
Two giant’s partnerships
Even though tensions occur within the two countries, many partnerships and diplomatic gestures illustrate their relations. Several agreements have been signed between Shanghai and New Delhi such as the India-China Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity in 2005. The May 2015’s agreements is another example: China and India signed in Shanghai 21 commercial and cooperation agreements for an amount of 22 billion of dollars. From an economic point of view, commercial trades have significantly increased: from 3 billion in 2000 to 61,7 billion in 2010. China became one of the first economic partners of India.
These agreements also shows the diplomatic relations between China and India with different agreements such as: “(…) with both sides showing mutual respect and sensitivity to each other’s concerns, interests and aspiration” or The two sides believed that enhanced military ties are conducive to building mutual trust and confidence”.
Moreover, the respective leaders have been welcomed in the other country several times in the last decades.
(The full Joint Statement here: http://pib.nic.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=121755)
Battle for spheres of influence
India and China do play a great game of sorts, competing for economic and military influence in Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. But these places are generally within the Greater Indian subcontinent, so that China is taking the struggle to India’s backyard. The whole map of Asia now spreads out in front of defence planners in New Delhi and Beijing, as it becomes apparent that the two nations with the largest populations in the world are encroaching upon each other’s spheres of influence. And so, India and China are eyeing each other warily.
On 5 September, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released a video announcing the formation of a new South Asian branch of AQ, “Qaedat al-Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent.” Zawahiri stated the group will “raise the flag of jihad” across the Indian subcontinent, as well as Myanmar and Bangladesh, and called upon Muslims “to wage jihad against its enemies, to liberate its land, to restore its sovereignty and to revive its caliphate.” Zawahiri states that a south Asian wing would benefit Muslims in Myanmar, Bangladesh and in the Indian states of Assam, Gujarat, Jammu and Kashmir, who would be freed from “injustice and oppression.”
In his message, also Zawahiri also announced that Pakistani militant Asim Umar would be the emir of al Qaeda’s South Asian wing, entrusted with reviving the network in the area spanning from Afghanistan to Myanmar. Little is known of Umar: he is believed to be in his mid-forties and is perceived as an ideologist and intellectual rather than a fighter. He is thought have had a crucial role in creating radicalized seminaries and madrassas, and he is known to have strong connections with Islamic seminaries in Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan. It is believed that Umar organised Osama bin Laden’s move to a safe house in Abbottabad, where the 9/11 mastermind he lived for years prior to his capture by U.S. forces.
Zawahiri’s announcement signifies an attempt for AQ resurgence in south Asia, where the group was considerably weakened over a series of targeted attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan by the US and allied forces. While the core group was diminished, affiliates have gained momentum in the Middle East and Africa. The group took advantage of power vacuums created during the 2011 Arab uprisings that swept the Middle East and North Africa to spread their ideologies. Thus, while AQ central has become weaker, the group’s affiliates have gained strength in several places including Mali, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq. In Africa, AQ has affiliates have gained in Somalia through al-Shabaab, which has spread chaos into Uganda and Kenya, and in Nigeria through Boko Haram, which has affected north-eastern Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger. These affiliates are now considerably stronger than the core AQ group. The announcement of a new AQ wing in South Asia indicates that the group has accepted this new ‘business model’ and seeks to reassert its relevance in the region by opening a new branch.
Following the release of Zawahiri’s 55 minute video message, India’s intelligence bureau issued security alerts across several provinces in the county. Zawahiri’s announcement came just hours after several news reports announced that the militant group ISIS was also conducting recruitment operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The news reports indicated that ISIS militants were distributing pamphlets in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region; the pamphlets called for the establishment of a caliphate in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. Zawahiri’s speech appeared to emphasise that the formation of the branch was not in direct response to ISIS, but the culmination of a longer process. In his message, he said, “This entity was not established today but is the fruit of a blessed effort of more than two years to gather the mujahedeen in the Indian sub-continent into a single entity.”
ISIS influence in India
Prior to the news reports on 5 September, ISIS was believed to focus its efforts on developing a ‘caliphate’ in areas the group had conquered in Iraq and Syria. In July, the group called for Muslims around the world to join them in establishing their new location. However it appears now that ISIS agents have been widening their efforts to recruit members of India’s Muslim community, the second largest in the world, with over 175 million Muslims.
In a speech on 5 July, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ‘caliph’ of ISIS, made three specific references to India, first stating that Muslim rights in the nation were “forcibly seized”, then referencing atrocities committed against Muslims in Kashmir. Finally, he included India in a reference that the caliphate had “gathered the Caucasian, Indian, Chinese, Shami, Iraqi, Yemeni, Egyptian, Maghrabi, American, French, German and Australian” recruits. It is known that some Indians have already left their nation to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria. On 25 August, Indian engineering student Arif Ejaz Majeed became the first Indian reported to be killed while fighting for ISIS in Iraq. He and three friends reportedly went missing in May, and made contact with their families in June to notify them that the quartet had travelled to Iraq to join the radical group.
ISIS does not have a physical presence in India, yet through social media, the group is seeking to develop a ‘fringe’ subculture amongst potential followers in the region. Like other extreme groups, ISIS has cultivated a message which exploits the emotions of socially or economically marginalised people while simultaneously issuing a welcome for Muslims into their caliphate. The tactic is intended to attract dissatisfied members of Indian Muslim community and encourage those disenchanted individuals to do the ‘heavy lifting’ to attract others. An example of this effort already taking shape is a group called al-Isabah Media Production. The media production group is under the umbrella of a new group called Ansar ut-Tawhid fi Bilad al-Hind (Supporters of Monotheism in the Land of India). This group translates ISIS propaganda into Hindu, Urdu and Tamil, and then delivers the messages through social media. While al-Isabah’s social media profiles on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter were removed after discovery, they still spread information through online chat rooms and other forums. This shows that ISIS does not necessarily need a physical presence in order to gain momentum in the region. This momentum has been most visible in the highly disputed region of Kashmir, where reports emerged that ISIS flags were being raised by young Muslim protestors in Srinagar. During two instances in July, young men in black masks raised the ISIS flag during protests of the Israeli airstrikes in Gaza. The incidents raised concerns in Kashmir, where Sunni and Shi’a Muslims have lived together harmoniously, that the introduction of ISIS ideology could create a sectarian divide. India has a very strong moderate Islamic core which is unlikely to allow space for ISIS or AQ, however, the instances where the militant groups have gained sympathy indicate that there are areas where troubles are significant enough for the groups to exploit by introducing an artificial identity crisis.
Competition or Unity
ISIS, formerly al-Qaeda in Iraq, severed ties with AQ in early 2014. ISIS quickly gained prominence through masterful use of propaganda and their rapid advancement through Iraq and Syria. The divergent groups have since been competing for new recruits, but AQ has been left overshadowed by ISIL’s media savvy. In part, AQ has been consistently overshadowed because its leader, Zawahiri, has remained underground, while ISIS has brazenly announced is movements. It could be this distinction that drove Zawahiri into making his rare appearance last week.
In Zawahiri’s message, he states, “O mujahideen, unite and reject differences and discord, and hold firm to the rope of Allah and be not divided amongst yourselves.” These references to rejecting differences could be a veiled message to encourage the groups to unite. He adds, “This entity, Allah permitting, was established to unite with its mujahideen brothers and the Muslims all over the world, and to crush the artificial borders established by the English occupiers to divide the Muslims in the Indian subcontinent.”
It is possible that Zawahiri is desperate to reunite ISIS and AQ in order to form one organisation rather than competing for a market share of radicalised minds. There is no indication, however, that ISIS intends to reunite with AQ. On the contrary, ISIS has actively urged AQ affiliates to leave their branch and join the newer organization.
The weekend bombing in India of one of Buddhism’s holiest sites showcases the growing problems between Muslim and Buddhist communities throughout South East Asia. Visitors should be aware of the growing troubles across the region and potential for related terrorist incidents, particularly given that the Buddhist pilgrimage season begins in September.
This recent incident happened on Sunday, July 7th at the Bohd Gaya temple complex in Bihar state, a historic religious site. There were a reported 10 blasts in total throughout the complex between 5:30 and 6am during morning prayers, targeting both statues and areas of religious significance as well as a bus stop. Official sources said the bombs ranged from low to high intensity, and the explosions injured two monks (one from Tibet, another from Myanmar). The temple itself was not seriously damaged. A further 3 unexploded bombs were found at the site over the following days and defused. Security at Buddhist sites in India and throughout the region has been increased as a result.
New Delhi was quick to condemn the incident as a terrorist attack, and blamed the notorious Indian Mujahedeen (IM) organisation, though no group has as of yet claimed responsibility for the attacks. The IM has been responsible for several terrorist attacks throughout India since 2008. It is reportedly related in some fashion with the banned organisation Student’s Islamic Movement of India, and also has connections with Pakistani based Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of the most active terrorist organisations in South Asia. It has been classed as a terrorist group by the British and American governments as well as the Indian authorities.
So far, 1 local person has been arrested in connection with the attack due to his identity card having been found at the scene. Police have however released CCTV images and sketches of two others they are looking for. Named as brothers Sahidur and Saifur Rehman (originally from Bihar but now living in Scotland and Saudi Arabia respectively), authorities believe they are IM members who have slipped into Bihar within the last two months. Currently their whereabouts are unknown. Controversy has also emerged in India about the response of the authorities to intelligence received in the days prior to the incident, with suggestions from opposition politicians that warnings were not heeded and that the attacks could have been prevented.
The Bohd Gaya complex is one of Buddhism’s holiest sites, and includes the Mahabodhi temple, where the Supreme Buddha is said to have gained enlightenment and a UNESCO world heritage site. Yearly, Bohd Gaya attracts many visitors from Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Nepal, China and Japan while the Dalai Lama makes frequent trips to the area. This is the first time Bohd Gaya has been successfully attacked, though police say they have foiled attempts in the past.
Nevertheless, attacks on Buddhists are rare in India, and Bihar state is more known for Maoist activity than Islamist attacks. This has led numerous commentators to draw an explicit connection between these attacks and recent problems between Muslim and Buddhist communities throughout the region, particularly in neighbouring Myanmar (Burma).
Myanmar has seen extreme unrest in the past year between nationalist Rakhine Buddhists and the minority Rohingya Muslim people, leaving destruction, chaos and many dead across large swathes of the country. Many Rohingya, not recognised as citizens of Myanmar and officially stateless, have been attempting to flee Myanmar to other countries in the region. There are Muslim militant groups active in Myanmar, and these have been connected with Al-Qaeda and other jihadist terrorist organisations in the past. These ethnic tensions have begun to have a regional impact, particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia who have majority Muslim populations. Ethnic tensions between Muslim and Buddhist communities are also on the rise in Sri Lanka, with the end of the 26 year civil war failing to bridge divides between communities. Further moves attacks on Buddhist sites in India could have extremely serious implications for regional security and stability, risking further exacerbation of ethnic tensions throughout South East Asia.
There are many Buddhist holy sites in India, and they could be potential targets of future attacks, particularly as the Buddhist pilgrimage season begins in September and will see hundreds of thousands of visitors to many sites. Caution and a high degree of security awareness should be maintained at all times.