The South Asian internet erupted early on Tuesday, June 9, with reports of a cross-border raid by the Indian Army Special Forces inside neighbouring Myanmar’s territory.
This comes after an ambush by Naga and Manipuri terrorists in India’s restive North East, which resulted in the deaths of 18 soldiers. Indian army and air force combined for this joint special operation and raided deep inside Myanmar territory, destroying two separate insurgent camps in two different locations. Myanmar’s government was informed, and the Burmese military brought into loop, after it happened.
Details of the operation are still extremely sketchy. Around 3 a.m., Special Forces of the 21 Para Commandos were flown into Myanmar in the Indian army’s “Dhruv” helicopters. Once in, they slithered [fast-roped] down, where they trekked 11 KM deep inside Myanmar’s territory. An Indian Air Force Mi-35 attack helicopter was on standby inside the Indian border, just in case of emergency. The forces then divided into two groups and attacked two different camps in separate locations. The entire operation took 40 minutes, without a single casualty on the Indian side. The Indian media claims over 100 were killed, although the Indian military never gave any numbers, only mentioning “significant casualties inflicted” on the rebels.
The attacks are the signal of a tough new approach by India, as it “annihilated the entire camps,” according to Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, a minister of state in India’s Information Ministry. Myanmar’s military didn’t directly participate in the operation, but the two sides were in close touch, Mr. Rathore said. The operation was approved by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and was overseen directly by the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. The Indian Army and Air Force were jointly coordinating the attack, with specific and precise intelligence being provided by the Indian external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).
According to the Wall Street Journal, Zaw Htay, director of the office of Myanmar President Thein Sein, confirmed Wednesday that Indian troops had entered his country. He said that there was “coordination and cooperation” between the Indian troops and Myanmar’s armed forces based in the area of the raids, but added that no Myanmar soldiers were directly involved, and it was a completely solo show by India. “We will never allow or support insurgents, whether [they are] against Myanmar or against our neighboring countries,” Zaw Htay said.
This is a new development in Indian foreign policy and military doctrine, and signals a new, tough, and proactive approach by PM Narendra Modi. As evidence of the new doctrine, the Times of India reported that Indian intelligence agencies have pinpointed locations of at least 17 camps of NE (North East) militants inside Myanmar. The locations of these camps are apparently within a 40km radius from the India-Myanmar border. Sources within the foreign policy and military establishment also mentioned more such cross-border raids to come soon. It is the new Modi-Doval doctrine, which focuses on offense rather than defense against insurgent and terrorist groups.
This event proves the premise of George W. Bush, the first American President who tried to get India into a coalition of democracies to balance China. India, like Australia, Japan and South Korea, is a natural democracy, with realist tendencies. Naturally, the rise of China would rattle this other Asian giant, and would provide a basis for American policy in Asia during the pivot.
It was under Bush that the U.S.’s biggest civilian nuclear deal was signed with India, and arms and technology transfer and intelligence sharing almost doubled. India also proved to be a solid ally in the war against Islamic terrorism, having suffered for decades from Pakistan-backed Kashmiri terrorists. Bush said India, being a democracy, is a natural ally against any authoritarian rising hegemon in Asia (i.e., China). Perhaps his foreign policy legacy should be judged on the basis of this foresight, and not just on Iraq, as the Liberals insist.
The Indian military strikes can be essentially regarded as a signal to external powers, primarily Pakistan, and also to an extent to China. Pakistan is accused of harbouring cross-border terrorists and Kashmiri insurgents, and due to its relatively weak conventional military compared to a giant like India, is known to practice asymmetric warfare. Up till now, India, a messy, chaotic natural democracy like the U.S. – and a nuclear power – has been traditionally known to punch under her weight, playing the defensive part. But this raid signifies a hardening of approach.
The gesture to China, meanwhile, is subtle as a sledgehammer. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Li vehemently denied, however, the Indian media accusation that China had close ties with Indian North Eastern insurgent groups.
This raid is also a significant change in the operational doctrine of Indian armed forces, which thus far had always been retaliatory. This is the first instance of a cross-border strike by India during peacetime. This is also the first time when Indian armed forces acted on the basis of the doctrine of pre-emptive strike – rarely practiced by any nation other than the United States, Russia, and Israel – when dealing with non-state actors.
Finally, this raid shows the new “LookEast” policy of the Indian government. India is already in talks with Vietnam regarding berthing of the Indian navy in Cam Ranh Bay, and oil drilling rights in the South China Sea (thereby cheesing China off further). A sale of Brahmos missiles is also being considered. Similarly, India is solving a land dispute with Bangladesh, and increasing military-to-military and intelligence sharing.
Significantly, this raid in another sovereign country, during peacetime, arguably signifies that India’s view of her sphere of influence now includes Myanmar. A shy and awkward giant is waking up from slumber to face off the adversary that America, with President Obama’s “pivot to the Pacific,” is currently trying to balance in Asia. American policy makers should take note of this change in Indian foreign policy posture, and use it as an opportunity.