I spy, with my little eye…
November 22, 2019

~ By Charmaine Mirza

Move over, Matahari. Double agents are passé. Today’s world is all about multi-tasking.

The Silk and Spice crossroads of India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia and Central Asia have long been a geopolitical chessboard. But the highest traded commodity isn’t silk or cinnamon – it’s espionage.

While the caravanserais of yesteryear echoed with many whispered secrets – today’s secrets bouncing off the chatrooms on WeChat or whatsapp. That think-tank seminar might not be a not so routine meeting of minds. Sweet nothings whispered into your ear…or your inbox, might just be a coded message!

Sounds amazing? Inchin Closer decides to press the pause button and take a walk in the footsteps of a “Spy Who Came In Out of the Tropics” in South Asia.

Chinese Casanova: The Honeytrap Technique

Who said romance is dead? The wink of an eye, that je ne sais quoi, or in today’s world, even a little  naughty sexting may have more than one innuendo. That charming young woman who found you “oh so interesting!” Or that debonair young man who swept you off your feet – may not only be pumping you for information, but even trying to recruit you!

Huawei Hacker: The Mobile Mafia

Huawei and Xiaomi have recently made headlines for being banned by several countries. India took a very cautious stance and Huawei in particular was placed under a strict security radar. Is that because they pose a massive threat to western mobile phone manufacturers… or is it because their software is designed to spy? On the other hand, Indian and Chinese investors continue to park their funds in each countries’ mobile technology and FinTech platforms, but the trade-offs might be in more than just in the financial realm.

Thousand Grains: The Jigsaw Puzzle

The Chinese are known for their “thousand grains of rice” technique – a mind boggling piecing together of seemingly inconsequential information that has been gleaned off a vast and global network of sources. In itself, each kernel of intelligence is meaningless, but when placed in context with one another, they take on new meaning. In India, this approach has been less successful as the Chinese expat diaspora is much smaller.

Partners in Crime: Pakistan Pals

One of the biggest drawbacks for Chinese spying on India is that they don’t talk the talk or have the look. So they outsource – and Pakistan has become their spy back office, thanks to the similarity of features and linguistic proficiencies.

Likewise, the Chinese have made inroads with insurgent groups in the north east of India.

“In or before 2009, the Naga group was asked by the Chinese to give information on the Dalai Lama’s group in India and the facilities of the Indian army in what India calls its Arunachal Pradesh state and China claims as South Tibet,” as in South China Morning Post

RAW Deal: Sri Lanka Strategy

There’s no doubt to anyone that China has made deep historic, economic, trade and political roots in the Emerald Isle. A fact that makes both India and Japan less enchanted and more edgy. There is a segment of those who believe that India’s RAW was a covert stooge in recent Sri Lankan politics that backed the anti-Chinese faction. There’s less doubt that China’s MSS supports miscreants and insurgents on Indian soil. The recent open support that China showed in favour of a known terrorist at the UN Security Council raised India’s eyebrows and it’s ire.

Dalai Lama Decoys: The Tibetan Turncoat

Thanks to their refugee status, their physical appearance and ability to negotiate the culture and language, Tibetans are often the target of both countries. In some cases, they have been found to play the game for both sides of the border, with the quasi backing of a “supporting” nation.

“Pema Tsering was arrested in 2013 in Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama’s base in India. He was an ineffective agent. Tsering had been jailed while serving in the Chinese armed forces and was released by the Chinese when he agreed to spy on the Dalai Lama’s group, but he was then recruited and paid by the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s main intelligence agency,” as reported in the SCMP.

Filling pockets; money matters

China has a vast guanxi of spies across the world, but some pundits believe it is interested in corporate espionage that fills it’s companies’ coffers.

“Much of the intelligence obtained by Chinese spying hits the pockets of foreign companies rather than directly helping China’s defence strategy…” see SCMP.

Spy support; helping us to INCH Closer

Ironically, several people in the know believe that covert espionage would actually help keep peace. There is a gaping hole in the lack of cultural exchange and understanding between two neighbours of such size and legacy.

“Given that the two countries do not have the cultural or political machinery in place to understand each other, espionage and intelligence gathering is vital to ensure that miscalculations do not take place. This has been apparent over the last few years in stand-offs in the Himalaya, as well as top-level suspicions on each side about a variety of subjects including terrorism, covert operations in Sri Lanka and Burma, and the two countries’ nuclear weapons programs,” says the Defense and Security Analysis

Real Politik: Hard Core Propaganda vs. Crude Pragmatism

However, the fact of the matter is that both countries have come to the reluctant understanding that it may be better to collaborate than compete. India is leaner and meaner – when it comes to deploying it’s resources, Pakistan takes priority. Covert activities are receiving less muscle power from the government than in previous decades.

China has several other entities closer to home where it needs to play Big Brother and prioritizes it’s political focus on Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and the USA, than India.

“China prefers the glamor of facing up to its Pacific and other maritime rivals such as the US and Japan. India, for its part, does talk a great deal about the China threat, but its resources and expertise are wrapped up in controlling its security threat from Pakistan and the Islamic world. When China and India do try to spy on each other, it is often without the benefit of a long-term focus or understanding.”

But global espionage circles aren’t all that disparate and there’s often an overlap of technique and even personnel (the recent case of David Headley as a double agent for the DEA and ISI is an excellent example). RAW has recently started recruiting civilians to add to its ranks just like the CIA and MI6, while the MSS still tends to cultivate it’s spies from special schools.

“The two countries are not friends. They have the largest territorial dispute in the world on their hands, covering an area the size of North Korea, and they have large armies facing each other along 4000 kilometers of frontier. But they also lay claim to the world’s two oldest and richest civilizations, with a rich history of exchange, and now with a combined population of 2.6 billion people and more than a quarter of the world’s economic output. If they cooperated, they could solve many of the world’s problems,” continues the Defense and Security Analysis Journal.

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