India’s eastern neighbor Myanmar (Burma) is sliding towards economic crisis and civil war. That is because the military once more replaced the elected government by force. China and Russia supported this and promptly used their veto powers in the UN to block UN actions against the military coup. The military move was a reaction to recent parliamentary elections that a political party that pledged to reorganize the military to prevent another military takeover won over 70 percent of the vote. The response of the military was not unexpected, because the civilian government knew that the Burmese generals maintained their economic connections with China and that was the main reason China has sold $1.4 billion worth of military equipment to Burma since 2010. Russia sold $800 million worth. Together China and Russia accounted for over 90 percent Burmese spending on imports of military gear. The Burmese military is comfortable with the cozy relationship but most Burmese are not.
Burmese military leaders were surprised at the extent and duration of mass protests after their February 1st takeover. By popular agreement the economy is shut down. The military still has income because during their decades of rule (from 1962 to 2010) they came to control many businesses and some of those were joint ventures with China. A lot of Chinese firms pay the Burmese military directly for joint ventures. Burmese army officers made a lot of money allowing China to do business in the tribal north, often at the expense of local civilians, most of them tribal people. After the return of democracy in 2011, China no longer had as much freedom in the north. China tried to maintain many of these economic projects by including them in the new CMEC (China-Myanmar Economic Corridor) agreement China and Burma signed in late 2018. That agreement called for both countries to begin detailed negotiations on where a 1,700-kilometer-long transportation corridor from southern China (Yunan province) to central Burma (Mandalay) and then west to the coast at the Kyaukpyu SEZ (Special Economic Zone) will be built and what it will consist of. The corridor would improve roads, railroads and build, as needed, pipelines and electrical transmission lines. This would be financed by China and built mainly by Chinese construction firms.
India is under pressure from voters and foreign allies to back the popular resistance to the Burmese coup. After all, India opposes the same kind of military misbehavior in Pakistan. China is seeking to turn both Pakistan and Burma into economically dependent and subservient client states run by some kind of dictatorship that will swiftly deal with any local criticism of Chinese control. The Burmese military has never had to face such widespread resistance before. Even the use of lethal force (gunfire that has killed dozens so far) has not suppressed mass resistance. The lethal force has been demoralizing for a growing number of junior members of the army and police. Using more lethal force risks mutiny by many of the police and soldiers who are ordered to do the shooting.
The Northern Threat
In northwest India (Ladakh State) Chinese forces have slowed their agreed withdrawal from Indian Ladakh. Both nations had concentrated thousands of troops along the shore of Pangong Lake. In September 2020 both agreed to halt their operations on the Indian border and continue negotiations. Both sides declared victory but China was the actual winner because now a thousand square kilometers of additional Indian territory along Panglong Lake is under Chinese control. By the end of 2020 the two sides had agreed to pull most of their forces back because of the frigid weather in the high mountains surrounding Pangong Lake. China has been slow to carry out all those withdrawals.
This is was not unexpected and was another example of the Chinese SSSN (Shove, Stop, Stands Fast) tactics, which have once again prevailed, as they have many times in the recent past. China initially expressed no interest in retreating but was willing to negotiate. With the cold weather approaching last September India was in no position to refuse the Chinese offer. China believes they will prevail by repeating their SSSN and push Indian forces out of all the disputed areas along their common border. SSSN is slow and it would take decades to grab all the Indian territory claimed by China. As long as China maintains a stronger military than India and can keep more troops near the disputed border areas, India will not feel confident to defend forcefully and risking a large-scale battle on the border.
India feels more capable in opposing China because of growing Indian economic power. Indian GDP nearly doubled in the last decade; from $1.7 trillion to the current $2.9 trillion. This made India the fifth largest economy, recently surpassing Britain and France. The rest of the top five are the U.S., China, Germany and Japan. Chinese GDP growth is slowing although in the last decade it more than doubled from $6.1 trillion to $14 trillion. Over three decades of spectacular economic growth in China resulted in the Chinese GDP becoming over fourteen times larger than it was in 1989. In that same period the U.S. GDP doubled. After World War II India had a larger GDP than China and never felt the same urgency as China to modernize and expand the economy. Actions have consequences and, in this case, it means China can push India around on their mutual border.
Another reason for this is that India is still haunted by the last battle between Indian and Chinese forces back in 1962. In a month of fighting that began on 20 October 1962, India lost 7,000 troops (57 percent prisoners, the rest dead or missing) compared to 722 Chinese dead. China declared a ceasefire that India accepted. China actually advanced in two areas, a thousand kilometers apart and ended up taking 43,000 square kilometers of Indian territory.
The source of the 1962 war and current border disputes are a century old and heated up again when China resumed control over Tibet in the 1950s. From the end of the Chinese empire in 1912 up until 1949 Tibet had been independent. But when the communists took over China in 1949, they sought to reassert control over their "lost province" of Tibet. This began slowly, but once all of Tibet was under Chinese control in 1959, China had a border with India and there was immediately a disagreement about exactly where the border should be. That’s because, in 1914, the newly independent Tibet government worked out a border (the McMahon line) with the British who then controlled India. China considers this border agreement illegal and wants 90,000 square kilometers back. India refused, especially since this would mean losing much of the state of Arunachal Pradesh in northeastern India and some bits elsewhere there and all along the new northern border.
India, as a democracy with a free press, has a public discussion of Chinese tactics and possible Indian responses. China also tries to take advantage of the Indian media freedom by buying favorable coverage in the Indian press. This is done via bribes, offers of investments or loans as well as economic concessions within China. Military strategy in China, since ancient times, has placed emphasis on having a powerful military but using it mainly as a threat and giving enemies an incentive to accept bribes and allow China to get what they want. Yet India has rarely been seen as an enemy of China. There is nothing valuable on their mutual border which for thousands of years has been along high mountains and thinly populated lowland jungles. Neither India nor China had any incentive to raise large armies to threaten each other.
Because of this background, the border disputes since the 1960s are seen by Indians as inexplicable and by Chinese as overdue restitution for centuries of humiliations inflicted by Western invaders. India, ever since it emerged from centuries of British colonial rule in 1947, insisted that India and China shared a background of oppression by the West. China sees India as trying to perpetuate Western crimes against China. To most Chinese, Indians look and sound like Westerners therefore India must be an enemy of China. India has come to accept that the Chinese are obsessed with making India pay for real or imagined wrongs inflicted by Western imperialists and see nothing wrong with using ancient Chinese imperialist methods to get their way. Suddenly British imperialism is not the worst thing that could ever happen to India. China is seeking to provide something much worse and much closer.
The latest phase of this ongoing campaign began earlier this year when China revived its border war with India over Pangong Lake, which is largely in Tibet and connected to Chinese claims on Kashmir territory. This is the longest lake in Asia and part of the 134-kilometer- long lake extends 45 kilometers into the Indian Ladakh region. China is using its usual SSSN tactics to slowly move the border into territory long occupied by India. The portion of the lake shore in dispute has no native population. The only people who visit the area are soldiers from India or China.
On the Bright Side
In Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Burma the number of dead and wounded from terrorist or political violence continues to decline. Pakistan is no longer one of the top five sources of deaths caused by terrorism. India is still a much safer place. Bangladesh never really had major Islamic terrorist problems and even Burma has reduced casualties from fighting tribal separatists in the north. All this is part of a trend.
India suffered 621 deaths from Islamic, separatist and communist violence in 2019 and unexpectedly saw a reduction in 2020. In other words, about .3 deaths per million population. Pakistan managed to reduce terrorism related deaths by 90 percent since 2015 and in 2019 the annual total was less than India for the first time. That did not last. Even with that 2019 decline, the Pakistan deaths per million population was 1.6, more than three times what India suffered in 2019. Pakistan still has more religious and separatist violence than India and is not making much progress in eliminating these corrosive attitudes. Worse, Pakistan is still plagued by a military establishment that refuses to abide by civilian control. Such civilian control has always been the case in more affluent and less violent India. The Pakistani military has been trying to depict India as a threat to Pakistani independence and prosperity. India is neither. Worse India considers Pakistan more of a nuisance than a threat and never considered Pakistan a glittering potential conquest. This enrages the Pakistani generals who have tried and failed, for decades, to make their illusions come true. This is changing for Pakistan with more internal opposition to the Pakistani military, including from senior military personnel.
Pakistani violence on the Kashmir border reached record numbers in 2020. There were over 350 incidents a month along the 740-kilometer border, which is only 22 percent of the 3,300-kilometer India-Pakistan border. Despite that increase in border violence India saw another decline in terrorist related deaths in 2020, with 588 dead, compared to 621 in 2019 and 940 in 2018. In 2020 54 percent of the dead were in Kashmir, while is higher than usual. Most years non-Islamic terrorist violence accounts for most of the violence but in 2020 leftist (Maoist) rebels in eastern India only accounted for 41 percent of the deaths with the five percent caused by tribal separatists in the northeast.
Pakistan had 506 terrorism related deaths in 2020, which was a 38 percent increase from the 365 recorded in 2019. That broke a trend in which Pakistani terrorism related deaths, which peaked at 11,317 in 2009, fell every year over the next decade. And then came 2020 when the numbers were up again. Pakistan suffered few deaths in its portion of Kashmir and most of the deaths were in the northwestern tribal territories but a larger number were throughout Pakistan.
Even in the record low year 2019 Pakistani terrorism related death rates were still much higher than India, a nation with six times the population but nearly twice as many terrorism related (most of it non-Moslem) deaths in 2019. In other words, adjusted for population size there is still three times as many terrorism deaths in Pakistan in 2019 and in 2020 it was over five times. Not included in the Pakistani totals are the many terrorism related deaths in India and Afghanistan that are a direct result of Pakistani support for Islamic terrorist organizations that are based in, and supported by Pakistan. These groups enjoy that Pakistani support as long as they attack targets designated by the ISI (Pakistani military intelligence). Pakistan is currently under major diplomatic and financial pressure over this terrorism-support policy which Pakistan still denies.
India has brought most of its separatist, leftist and Islamic terrorist activity under control. But in Kashmir Pakistani is still waging a border war by having its troops fire across the border and claim it is self-defense because the Indians almost always fire back. Then there is three decades of Pakistani support for Islamic terrorism in Kashmir, which has not accomplished much except to ruin the local economy and get a lot of Kashmiris, and Islamic terrorists from Pakistan, killed.
March 20, 2021: In Pakistan the military is charging twelve military personnel (a colonel, a major and ten subordinates) for complicity in Pakistani Taliban leader Ehsanullah Ehsan escaping from house arrests in January 2020. A month later it was revealed that Ehsan, a notorious Pakistan Taliban official was apparently allowed, by the military, to escape. Ehsan had surrendered in early 2017 and promptly cooperated in providing large quantities of information on how the Pakistani Taliban operated. The military admitted that his information was very useful and even allowed Ehsan to live in a guarded safe house and give interviews to Pakistani media. Ehsan was supposed to eventually go on trial and the government would have to deal with the enormity of his past crimes. It appears Ehsan’s cooperation was expected to spare him the death penalty but still require some time in prison. It was suspected that the military deliberately let him go to encourage other Islamic terrorist leaders to emulate Ehsan. The Pakistani military was a suspect early on because Ehsan not only got out of his safe house but out of the country and to asylum in Turkey. His wife and children also “disappeared” at the same time and showed up in Turkey with him. This “escape” angered a lot of Pakistanis because Ehsan was a notorious Pakistan Taliban and ISIL leader. Ehsan is considered responsible for the death of hundreds of Pakistani civilians, including over a hundred students at a school for the children of military personnel. Apparently, the deal the military made with Ehsan involved a lot of conditions that could not be revealed without making the military look bad. The upcoming court-martial is seen as a whitewash with the twelve army men admitting guilt, taking their punishment and then later quietly released and paid off for the loyalty and service. This is how the Pakistani military operates and everyone in Pakistan understands this as do many in neighboring countries like Afghanistan and India. Some believe this prosecution is part of an effort to keep Pakistan off the FATF (Financial Action Task Force) blacklist of known supporters of international Islamic terrorism. Pakistan has relied on diplomatic support from China and Russia to avoid the blacklist and its catastrophic economic costs.
March 18, 2021: In southwest Pakistan (Baluchistan) Pakistan is encountering some open defiance by the military because of the CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) project. The Navy and Coast Guard refuse to give up 47 hectares (116 hectares) at the site of the new Gwadar port project. The commanders of the Navy and Coast Guard are making a public protest against the policy of being so economically and militarily dependent on China. This opposition has been growing within the military leadership, who see this dependence on China as a surrender of independence and putting Pakistan at risk of becoming collateral damage if China decides to fight Indian and its Western and East Asian allies for control of the Indian Ocean. The Pakistani naval officers have done the math and believe China has little chance of prevailing against that kind of coalition. Worse is the fact that Pakistan is becoming so economically and diplomatically dependent on their northern neighbor. This public protest, which the Chinese are demanding be resolved quickly, began in late 2020 and surfaced now because the Chinese are visibly upset at this insubordination. The growing opposition within Pakistan, and the Pakistani military towards the increasing brutality of the military against elected officials, critical media and anyone who opposes the military getting its way, also exists in the military. Not just among junior members but among senior commanders.
The military decided over a decade ago that Pakistan should be willing to pay a high price to get CPEC done because it means Pakistan has an ally against Iran and even Western powers that might have some violent disagreement with Pakistan. China addressed that by pointing out that China does not have allies, just powerful trading partners (the West in general) and client states (like Pakistan). That has always been the Chinese outlook and it hasn’t changed.
While China is picking up most of the $60 billion cost of CPEC, it means that China owns many of those new economic assets, especially the new port of Gwadar. In early 2017 China and Pakistan finally signed the agreement that granted China a 40-year lease on new Chinese built facilities China at Gwadar. The lease grants China most (over 80 percent) of the revenue brought in by port and free trade zone operations. China usually imports its own workers from China to do most of the work on projects like this. By 2022 China expects to have about half a million Chinese in Pakistan, some of them with their families. The easiest way to provide protection is to have most of them live in a heavily guarded and restricted access area. Gwadar is a key part of CPEC and it has the misfortune of being in a province (Baluchistan) that does not want to be part of Pakistan. China and the Pakistanis try to ignore this by not reporting on non-Islamic terror attacks on CPEC construction projects. The government has long been accused of suppressing news of tribal separatists in Baluchistan attacking government targets and especially those related to CPEC. The separatists claim they regularly carry out attacks on CPEC construction projects, but most of their attacks are still directed at Pakistani security forces and government facilities.
Because of the security threat to Gwadar, China demanded that Pakistan build 30 kilometers of three-meter-high security fencing near the two main entrances to Gwadar. In addition, the Chinese are installing 500 security cameras within the perimeter of the port. Pakistanis fear the entire port area will eventually be fenced off to protect what is described by locals as a Chinese naval base guarded by Chinese and Pakistani troops. Since early 2019 Pakistan has been responding to Chinese complaints that about lack of security, and agreed to add more troops to the security forces already assigned to guard over 300 Chinese projects in Pakistan and the 15,000 foreigners (mainly Chinese) who work on them. The existing force has over 15,000 personnel with 9,000 being soldiers and the rest local para-military forces. This will be in addition to the special naval force that protects navy facilities in Gwadar and the waters off Pakistan.
In mid-2017 Pakistan also agreed to build a walled and restricted residential area near the port of Gwadar to house up to half a million Chinese that will eventually be working in Pakistan. The Chinese construction work on Gwadar port facilities is visible to anyone on the ground or flying by and it was noticed that some features of the new port and airport facilities are clearly intended for military use. India has long claimed China (despite denials) was planning to use Gwadar as a base for Chinese warships and naval aircraft. Pakistan never had a problem with Chinese military using Gwadar as it helps keep local troublemakers out. Pakistan has assured China that there would be no terrorist violence against Chinese working on upgrading the port of Gwadar and land links north to China. The military now has to assure their Chinese overlords that dissent with the Pakistani military will be suppressed as well.
March 17, 2021: In northwest Pakistan (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) soldiers encountered two Pakistani Taliban gunmen and during a gun battle killed one and captured the other. Two bystanders were also killed.
March 15, 2021: Iran has resumed illegally exporting oil to India and China. This is risky because the tankers carrying these shipments can be intercepted and seized. As soon as the new American government took power in January Iran told current and past customers for discounted smuggled oil that Iranian oil would be more easily available in 2021, either free of sanctions or less vigorously enforced sanctions. Iran was betting that the new U.S. government would ease off on the oil export sanctions. So far this has not happened but the Iranian leaders insist it will happen and soon.
March 8, 2021: In southwest Pakistan (Baluchistan) police, acting on a tip, raided a Baluchi separatist hideout and found five armed men who refused to surrender. The five were killed during the subsequent gun battle and were found to be guarding a large stockpile of weapons and ammo for their group; Baluchi Liberation. This group was responsible for an attack, several hours earlier, on a Navy vehicle that left one sailor dead and two wounded.
March 7, 2021: In northwest Pakistan (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and North Waziristan) soldiers clashed twice with Pakistani Taliban gunmen, killing eight of the Islamic terrorists.
March 6, 2021: After more than a year of negotiations India has agreed to purchase 30 SeaGuardian UAVs, ten each for the army, navy and air force. SeaGuardian is the latest version of the American MQ-9B Reaper SkyGuardian and was modified to handle maritime surveillance. This process was completed and certified in late 2020. India will pay about $3 billion for the 30 Seaguardians and that includes sensors, training and tech support. The “Guardian” UAVs are selling mainly to export customers. This version was originally called MQ-9B ER (Extended Range) but after potential customers were approached, it was decided to expand the capabilities of MQ-9B ER into what is now the MQ-9 SkyGuardian and SeaGuardian. New features include compliance with NATO STANAG 4671 standards. This means Guardian UAVs can fly in commercial airspace. STANAG 4671 sets the strictest UAV commercial airspace rules in the world. If a UAV is STANAG 4671 compliant it can basically operate anywhere. SkyGuardian can operate as high as 15,000 meters (50,000 feet) and stay in the air for up to 40 hours. This means SkyGuardian can (and did in 2018) flown across the Atlantic. SkyGuardian is equipped with a deicing system and lightning strike resistance. There is more systems redundancy, which increases reliability and reduces losses to mechanical or electrical failure.
March 2, 2021: In northwest Pakistan, across the border in Afghanistan (Nangarhar Province) Afghan commandos located and raided the main Taliban headquarters in the province. This facility controlled the movement of personnel and goods into and out of Pakistan. Among the items captured during the raid was some of the drugs that the Taliban is paid to get across the border into Pakistan.
February 27, 2021: In Afghanistan the Taliban issued a public declaration that foreigners were no longer allowed in the Taliban. This was a response to public criticism about the growing number of foreigners in Taliban ranks. Even pro-Taliban civilians oppose long-time Taliban use of foreigners in their combat units. The presence of foreigners also reminds everyone that Taliban have long been criticized as controlled by the Pakistani army. This was the case from the beginning, when the original (mid-1990) Taliban were recruited from among Afghan refugees who fled the 1980s Russian invasion but were still in Pakistan. The refugee camps were in border areas where the local population were also Pushtun tribes, as were most of the refugees. The Pakistan army, which organized the formation of the Taliban, sent in men, dressed as civilians, to advise and keep an eye on this new faction meant to end the civil war that broke out after the Russians left in the late 1980s. These Pakistani Taliban were ordered to leave as soon as it appeared Taliban rule was collapsing after the U.S. intervened on the side of anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in late 2001. The Northern Alliance (of northern non-Pushtun tribes) were the first to publicize the presence of Pakistanis in the Taliban and the control Pakistan always had over the Taliban. That support became more obvious after 2001 when Pakistan provided sanctuary for the Taliban leadership in southwest Pakistan (Baluchistan), something the Taliban were unable to hide given the number of prominent Taliban living openly in the Baluchistan capital.
Pakistan always denied that there was any sanctuary arrangement or any Pakistani members of the Taliban. That was always considered a lie because of the Afghan security forces custom of returning the dead to their families for burial. This was accepted as an ancient Afghan custom and it led to a lot of the Afghan dead being taken to a border crossing where Pakistani family members where there to claim it. While this was a constant embarrassment for the Taliban and Pakistan but interfering with return of the dead to their families was considered likely to stir up Pushtun unrest in Pakistan.
One way to avoid this embarrassment is for the Taliban to take their dead, as well as their wounded with them when they retreated. Identifying dead Afghan Taliban gave the security forces information on where the Taliban were recruiting and which families might be the source of Taliban support. Over the last few years the Taliban have been suffering more casualties, with large numbers of dead left on the battlefield. The army identifies the dead and the number of foreigners is always newsworthy in Afghanistan where most people blame Pakistan for all this violence. In some recent incidents most of the dead were Pakistanis or Islamic terrorists from other parts of the world, like Chechnya and Central Asia. The percentage of Pakistani members has been increasing.
February 25, 2021: In northwest India (Kashmir), India agreed to a Pakistani ceasefire offer for the 760-kilometer-long LoC (Line of Control). This was a surprise because the senior military leaders of both countries had used the hotline established in early 2017. This agreement comes at a good time for the five million civilians, especially the farmers, who live near both sides of the LoC. Last year saw a record number of incidents where Pakistan fired on Indian border guards, or just sent shells over the border to terrorize civilians. India usually returns fire and has the same impact on Pakistani civilians. While 60 percent of the LoC civilians are Indian, Pakistani civilians have been more strident in the protests against the violence. Dozens of farming villages were abandoned during 2020 because of all the shooting. Pakistan has offered ceasefires before, but they always eventually resume shooting. This time the peace deal is supposed to work because Pakistan is having problems within its own military about the wisdom of continuing this phony, but often fatal, war against India. Another contributing factor was pressure from Arab oil states that have long supported Pakistan. The Arabs are no longer lend, or give, Pakistan large sums of money to keep the economic going. The Arabs see the Pakistani military as part of the problem here because the military has come to own a large fraction of the Pakistani economy and is able to intimidate other local and foreign companies to go along with this corrupt and inefficient behavior.
February 22, 2021: In northwest Pakistan (North Waziristan) Pakistani Taliban gunmen ambushed a vehicle carrying Pakistani teachers who had volunteered to teach at a vocational school to provide locals with useful skills. The driver was wounded but the four female teachers were killed. The Taliban believe women should not travel freely or interact regularly with men, as the teachers must do. During 2020, Islamic terrorist violence in North Waziristan left at least 58 dead.
February 19, 2021: In northwest Pakistan (North Waziristan) police, acting on a tip, raided a Pakistani Taliban hideout near the Afghan border. The two gunmen at the location refused to surrender and died in the ensuing gun battle, as did one soldier. One of the dead terrorists was later identified as a senior commander who was an expert in building bombs.