Border Provinces in Foreign Policy: China’s West and India’s Northeast

Extract from Jabin T. Jacob, “Border Provinces in Foreign Policy: China’s West and India’s Northeast,” in Dilip Gogoi (ed.), Beyond Borders: India’s Look East Policy and Northeast India (Guwahati: DVS Publishers, 2010), pp. 126-147.

Territory being one of the essential prerequisites for the existence of a state, territorial boundaries and border polities are the focus of much attention from governmental authority. In the case of South Asia, where the nation-state itself is of recent vintage, the many nations that were born at various times from the remains of British India were quick to adopt the caution and suspicion that marked colonial border policy. As a result, borders areas continue to be viewed as requiring strict government (often central government) control and supervision and even development activities are prioritized below security interests. In the case of areas such as the Northeast of India such a policy has meant that a region that was once a bridge connecting peoples, cultures and civilizations, and a centre of trade and commerce has now been reduced to a periphery and dependant on doles and subsidies from the central government. However, this is by no means a situation unique to India. The periphery in China represented by the minority ethnic group-dominated provinces of the vast western region of the country have suffered similarly under central government anxieties that have seen the imposition of heavy-handed state control from Beijing.

However, beginning in the 1990s China has given greater leeway in economic matters, to these provinces of the west under its Western Development Strategy (WDS). In India, too, there is greater attention being paid to connecting India’s Look East Policy (LEP), a foreign policy initiative, with the economic development of the Indian Northeast. Might the WDS and the LEP be compared? This paper examines the rationale for such a comparison and looks at the results derived and their implications.


Comparing China’s West and India’s Northeast

At the outset, it must be made clear that this paper does not view either China’s western region or India’s northeast as singular, uniform entities, but uses the respective geographical categorization only as a matter of convenience. Further, while the number of provinces making up The composition of China’s vast west varies according the parameters used for classification,[1] and when this paper refers to the WDS and to its impact on China’s western provinces, the emphasis is largely on the provinces dominated by minorities or with substantial populations of minorities such as Xinjiang, Tibet, Qinghai, and Yunnan rather than the largely Han Chinese provinces Sichuan, Chongqing or Shaanxi, which also have substantially different economic structures from the other provinces that come under the purview of the WDS. Officially, there are 12 provinces that the WDS is targeted at and these comprise a variety of different administrative classifications (all, however, of equal in rank within the Chinese political system). The western region thus comprises of the municipality of Chongqing, the provinces of Yunnan, Guizhou, Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi, and the autonomous regions of Tibet, Xinjiang, Ningxia, Inner Mongolia and Guangxi.[2] This vast region makes up 71.45 per cent of the country’s total land area and at the end of 2001 was home to over 28.1 per cent of China’s population, in 2000.[3] By contrast, India’s Northeast occupies about eight per cent of India’s total land area and holds less than four per cent of its total population. The classification originally comprised the seven states of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunacahl Pradesh, with Sikkim later joining the group as the eighth constituent.

There are features of the Chinese west that will be familiar to observers of India’s northeast as well. Some of China’s western provinces have been the site of several ethnically-based political movements and the invariable targets of state suppression – Tibet and Xinjiang providing the most well-known examples. Northeast India too, despite its relatively small geographical extent and being dominated by myriad ethnic minorities, is similarly witness to ethno-national movements against the central government. Over and above these, there exists a number of simmering inter-ethnic conflicts as well in the region.

China’s west and Northeast India share other similarities. In both countries, massive economic support from the central government has followed the force of arms. Western China is, in fact, not undeveloped by certain standards and has a history of at least two thousand years of state-sponsored development, even enjoying periods of prosperity.[4] Coming to more modern times, it has been the case at least since the mid-1950s, that central government policy has actually favoured the western provinces over the eastern provinces. Some of these provinces have consistently received investment greater than their share of output over the decades but with the beginning of the preferential policies of the reform era for the coast, saw the funds dry and began to slowly fall behind.[5] Northeast India too, was once a thriving centre of trade and commerce[6] but is today, economically backward and depends heavily on central government economic subsidies. However, any positive impact of such subsidies notwithstanding, it has been contended in both China and India that the lack of local initiatives has acted as a constraint on growth in their minority-dominated regions. Meanwhile, the continued political and social discrimination, faced by the peoples of these regions, despite claims to the contrary by the respective central governments, have acted as both cause and effect for their backwardness.

Comparing China’s WDS and India’s LEP

The primary difference between China’s WDS and India’s LEP is that the former originated as an internal development programme targeted at the country’s large western region while the latter began as a foreign policy strategy to enable New Delhi to reach out to East Asia and in particular, to Southeast Asia. In recent years, however, both capitals have found that their respective strategies cannot be run in isolation from the external neighbourhood (in the case of China) and from domestic imperatives (in the case of India).

Beijing for example, realized that the western region’s problems could not be solved only by central government initiatives and that greater integration with the larger domestic market would take time given factors such as distance, lack of physical infrastructure and differing economic structures. Beijing and the provincial capitals involved have as a result increasingly begun to look towards neighbouring countries as a means of achieving access to markets and speedier economic development. In particular, where Xinjiang, Tibet, and Yunnan are concerned, greater attention began to be paid to developing linkages with the countries to the south in what might be called China’s Look South Policy.

In India, meanwhile, realization has finally dawned that interactions with East and Southeast Asia cannot take place overlooking its main physical connection to that region, namely the Northeast. New Delhi now sees the emphasis on the Northeast’s development as providing both a new thrust to the LEP itself and additional opportunities to the northeastern provinces for economic development.

Nevertheless, while in China, the WDS serves as a public and symbolic demonstration of the central government’s concern with national unity, inequality and poverty,[7] India does not yet really have a comparable Northeast Development Strategy in place and even the LEP’s inward focus towards the Northeast is of recent vintage and far from being a coherently-articulated strategy. It has been pointed out by no less a person than the Minister for Development of the North Eastern Region (DoNER), Mani Shankar Aiyar, that “The Look East policy is not even a written document yet and the harvest of the initiatives is so far nil.”[8] And as Sanjib Baruah has pointed out, “the provincial government of China’s Yunnan province and institutions such as the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences play a far more active role in China’s efforts to build bridges with South and Southeast Asia than their counterparts in Northeast India. This is no minor irony since China’s political system is centralized and authoritarian while ours is democratic and federal.”[9] Still, the LEP’s Northeast focus might be considered a public and symbolic demonstration of the fact that it is no longer possible to exclude the Northeast from a central role in India’s LEP. If nothing else, such externally-generated necessity pushed in no small measure by developments across the border in China, should provide another reason for the Indian central government to look for sustainable solutions to the Northeast’s long-standing problems.

It is just as important to note that as in China, a booming Indian economy might provide part of the impetus for the renewed attention being paid to the development of the Northeast. Indeed, it has been argued that the Chinese central government’s intervention in the development of its western regions in the form of the WDS shows the increased capacity and resources available to the central government as a result of the country’s rapid economic growth.[10] Both in China and India, there is also the realization that the peripheries needed sustained economic growth and improved integration into national markets in order to maintain peace and stability and to provide an alternative to ethno-national aspirations.

on the Stilwell Road in December 2008

However, the WDS also appears to hint at a degree of internal colonialism especially in minority-dominated provinces, given its projects of resource extraction and infrastructure development. For example, the Qinghai-Tibet Railway (QTR) that was completed in July 2006 was also aimed at Tibet’s expanding economic interactions with the rest of the country and the facilitating the exploration of its mineral resources.[11] In India, meanwhile, the Northeast’s vast natural energy resources are constantly held out as inducements to both domestic and foreign, particularly Southeast Asian, investors.[12] As a result, increasing and improving transport and communication links between their peripheries and the rest of the country are priorities for both Beijing and New Delhi. Infrastructure development designed to increase the integration of the western region with the rest of the country is at the “core” of the WDS[13] and a cursory look at the list of projects completed and awaiting completion in Northeast India shows that a large number of these are related to developing physical infrastructure in the region.[14]

Both Beijing’s and New Delhi’s policies, it may be said, are also driven by external considerations such as the ability to maintain the status quo on the disputed border much more so than by the domestic necessities of their respective peripheries. On the Indian side, physical infrastructure development in the region was first deliberately not undertaken owing to fears of the Ministry of Defence and other central government ministries of possibly providing the Chinese additional advantages in case of an attack[15] but is now being carried out in response to China’s own massive infrastructure development in Tibet.

There are in addition, larger problems of balancing economic growth with improvement in living standards and sustainable development, including environmental protection and resource utilization in both countries. The complaints heard in the Indian Northeast of exploitation and lack of concern for the ecology of the region echo those made about the kind of economic development that is taking place in Tibet.[16] For example, it has been argued that the Indian central government’s policies on hydroelectric power do not take into account environmental concerns, including flooding induced by dam construction.[17] In fact, groups in the Northeast have even opposed infrastructure projects such as the proposed gas pipeline between Myanmar’s offshore oil fields off the Arakan coast and Kolkatta passing through Mizoram and Assam on the grounds of its political and environment impact on Myanmar.[18]

The two central governments are perhaps also alike in that what they allocate as subsidies or development funds to their peripheries are actually shared among “a network of political clients,” including various levels of governments, other institutions and individuals.[19] Even as Beijing’s own abilities for investment decline, it has encouraged rich provinces and profit-making state corporations to take up the slack. The process is helped along no doubt by the special loans set aside for entrepreneurs willing to invest in the interior provinces.[20] It has to be asked if such a situation is also not likely in India.[21]

Similarly, the exoticizing by the two central governments of their respective minority-dominated peripheries whether in terms of preserving minority cultures, generating tourist potential or as venues for adventure sport is also problematic. In the mid-1990s, Meghalaya’s State Economic Development Council, with a membership cutting across party and official lines, declared that New Delhi’s policy of cultural and political protectionism in the name of the tribal people did not really serve their interests.[22] It has also been argued, for example, that Yunnan’s high inflows of domestic tourists reflect a reinforcement of ethnic Han identity.[23] Something similar might be said also about Tibet. It might be argued that this sort of reinforcement of separate identities and of stereotypes takes place vis-à-vis India’s northeast, as well. In Tibet and in Northeast India which sees larger numbers of troops on the ground than domestic tourists perhaps, this process is probably in evidence among the troops themselves. Further, both Tibet and Northeast India are advertised as venues for adventure tourism but scant attention is paid really to anything but the essential physical infrastructure required for such tourism. For example, the first ever India-ASEAN car rally that was flagged off from Guwahati in November 2004 was conceived to showcase the Northeast’s new importance in India’s LEP but the level of connectivity between the northeastern states has since remained abysmal as ever.[24]

There is, however, an increasing realization in both countries that excessive reliance on the capacity of the central government and its bureaucratic arrangements for economic development is not sustainable. In both India and China, under central government policies of regional planning surplus generated in one region was transferred to another with the expectation that this would increase overall national efficiency through optimum resource allocation. However, in the reform era, Beijing has faced declining ability to intervene in the market, including declining returns from investments and is faced with the necessity of paying attention to the rejuvenation also of the industrial rust belt of its northeast.[25] In India, too there have been complaints that New Delhi has been less than able to devote enough resources to the development of the Northeast. For example, it has been observed that against a demand of over Rs.60 billion by the North Eastern Council, in the 10thFive Year Plan (2002-2007), the amount earmarked by the Planning Commission was only Rs.35 billion.[26] Similarly, it has been argued by Assam that the province’s lack of development, when compared to the rest of the country, is also because large national financial institutions have paid little attention to investing in the Northeast.[27]

In addition, in China, the central government driven by market considerations, has been able to concentrate only on particular areas, often Han-dominated, to act as growth poles. A similar situation may be said to exist also in the case of the Indian northeast and it is more than likely that given the vast area (in the case of China), the difficulty of terrain and the remoteness of these border regions, it will be a long time before central government intervention will bear any significant results in either country.

It is against this backdrop and notwithstanding potentially explosive ethno-national issues that the two countries have decided to varying degrees that their respective peripheries had to open up to the world in general and to neighbouring economies in particular.

Other sections

The WDS – China’s Look South Policy?

The LEP – India’s Northeast Development Strategy?

See the full article here

[1] Barry J Naughton, “The Western Development Program,” in Barry J Naughton and Dali L Yang (eds.), Holding China Together: Diversity and National Integration in the Post-Deng Era (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 275-81.

[2] The inclusion of provinces like Sichuan and Chongqing in the category of China’s West is roughly the equivalent of including West Bengal along with the rest of the Northeast Indian states. Studies of regional development in China consequently use a far more varied categorization of its provinces than do studies of India’s Northeastern states.

[3] Jin Fengjun and Qian Jinkai (complied), A Social and Economic Atlas of Western China (trans. Wang Pingxing) (Beijing: China Intercontinental Press, 2003), p. 6.

[4] Yeung Yue-man and Li Xiaojian, China’s Western Development: The Role of the State in Historical and Regional Perspective, Shanghai-Hong Kong Development Institute, Occasional Paper No. 10, 2004, p. 22; Naughton, n. 1, p. 254.

[5] Yeung and Li, ibid., p. 2.

[6] B G Verghese, India’s Northeast Resurgent: Ethnicity, Insurgency, Governance, Development, 2nd ed. (New Delhi: Konark Publishers, 1997), pp. 23, 37.

[7] Naughton, n. 1, pp. 253-95.

[8] “India’s much hyped ‘Look East’ policy a distant dream,” Indo Asian News Service, 11 October 2007, See also “Minutes of the Meeting chaired by Shri Pranab Mukherjee, Hon’ble Minister of External Affairs to discuss issues relating to ‘Look East Policy vis-à-vis North Eastern Region’,” Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region, New Delhi, 31 October 2007,

[9] Sanjib Baruah, “Making of (sic) the Northeast a Gateway: Confronting the Challenges,” Yaatra, Journal of Assamese Literature and Culture, Vol. 1, No. 1, November-December 2005,

[10] Naughton, n. 1, p. 261. It is, perhaps, noteworthy that the shift in focus of both China’s WDS and India’s LEP to their respective lesser-developed peripheries occurred at about the same phase in each country’s economic reforms and opening up – roughly 15 years for both China and India. In other words, it happened when the dominant economies or economic interests of both countries began to see a need for expanded markets domestically as well as externally. For Chinese studies on this dimension, see Yeung and Li, n. 4, p. 22; Fan Jie, “Western Development Policy: Changes, Effects and Evaluation,” in Y M Yeung and Shen Jianfa (eds.), Developing China’s West: A Critical Path to Balanced National Development (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2004), pp. 79-105.

[11] “Tibet’s economy welcomes new railway era,” People’s Daily, 8 July 2006,

[12] See for example, M M Jacob, “An Introduction to India’s Northeast,” Speech at GOPIO Convention –2000, Zurich, Switzerland, 22 July, 2000, and J J Singh, “The Northeast will prosper only when its people reject terrorism,” The Telegraph, 10 January 2008, Jacob was then governor of the state of Meghalaya and Singh is currently governor of Arunachal Pradesh, both appointees of the central government. Similarly, documents on the investment potential of northeastern states to be found on the website of the North Eastern Development Finance Corporation Ltd. based in Guwahati and run under the direction of DoNER Ministry, also invite domestic and foreign investments on the basis of the region’s rich natural resources. See It is another matter that according to Minister of DoNER, Aiyar, Indian infrastructure companies have not been showing adequate interest in infrastructure development in the Northeast. In fact, he was of the view that attracting foreign participation to the region would help persuade Indian companies also to invest. See “Minutes of the Meeting…,”  n. 8.

[13] Naughton, n. 1, pp. 269-71.

[14] “Catalogue of Projects and Schemes of NEC,” North Eastern Council, September 2005,

[15] See John Garver, Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 99.

[16] For more on Tibet, see “Crossing the Line: China’s Railway to Lhasa, Tibet,” a report by the International Campaign for Tibet, Washington, D.C., Amsterdam and Berlin, 2003,

[17] Ajit Patowary “Centre’s NE hydel policy ignores floods,” The Assam Tribune, 9 September 2004,

[18] Mungpi, “NESO reiterates support to anti-pipeline project campaign,”Mizzima News, 3 November 2006,

[19] Naughton has talked about this aspect with respect to China. See Naughton, n. 1, p. 288.

[20] Dali L Yang and Houkai Wei, “Rural Enterprise Development and Regional Policy in China,” Asian Perspective, Vol. 20, No. 1, Spring-Summer 1996, p. 86.

[21] One of the problems that a policy of inviting investment into regions with poor human capital might lead to is the creation of enclave economies. See Vibhanshu Shekhar, “Thailand’s Look West Policy: Opportunities and Challenges for India’s Northeast,” in this book, for more on this aspect in the case of Northeast India.

[22] Verghese, n. 6, p. 412.

[23] Grant Evans, “The Southern Chinese Borders: Still a Frontier,” in Françoise Mengin and Jean-Louis Rocca (eds.), Politics in China: Moving Frontiers (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), p. 223.

[24] Nitin A Gokhale, “‘Look East’ Policy? The farce-sighted,” Tehelka, 18 August 2005,

[25] Gulshan Sachdeva, “India’s North-East: Rejuvenating A Conflict-Riven Economy,” Faultlines, Vol. 6, 6 February 2006,; Naughton, n. 1, p. 261; Anja Lahtinen, “China’s Western Region Development Strategy and its Impact on Qinghai Province,” Ministry of Trade and Industry, Government of Finland, September 2005,

[26] “Role of NEC in North Eastern Region,” Planning and Development Department, Assam,

[27] “Financial institutions’ apathy to blame for State’s backwardness,” The Assam Tribune, 28 June 2004,


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