Strange as it may sound, China and India need a basis in espionage to improve their relationship. The two countries are ignorant of each other’s strategies, with suspicion taking the place of intelligence just when understanding is critical. Both nuclear powers, they have the world’s largest border dispute on their hands, at over 100,000 square kilometres. They tussle over sea routes in the Indian Ocean, spheres of influence in neighbouring countries and relations with Pakistan. They need to know each other better.

Neither country engages satisfactorily in normal people-to-people interaction. Only 175,000 Chinese tourists visited India last year, compared with 2.4 million to China’s arch-rival Japan. China’s investments in India total just US$4 billion, less than its investments in Poland. India’s investments in China are smaller still. There is also a dearth of diplomatic exchange. India’s embassy in China has just 30 diplomats. Only 9,200 Indian students study in China, with even fewer Chinese students in India.

This is an unsatisfactory state of affairs for two of the greatest civilisations to have existed and it is unlikely that stronger ties will develop quickly. It is vital that the two countries improve the one area of understanding that is available – that of state-sponsored intelligence.

China’s spy service network is widespread with hundreds of thousands of staff in several different agencies and more outside the intelligence services. The data provided is often useless, and if useful, often ignored. India’s spy services are smaller but it has some outstanding agents who carry out the bulk of the useful work. These exceptional agents have, by themselves, justified the budgets of the entire intelligence network by serving India’s national interests at critical moments. But India does not have an effective team focused on China. Meanwhile, China has not devoted resources to India – its government accepts that it lacks detailed intelligence on India but believes there is no need to assign more resources.

China invests more in espionage than India, but its effectiveness is overstated in Western media and by foreign militaries. Much of the intelligence obtained by Chinese spying hits the pockets of foreign companies rather than directly helping China’s defence strategy, but some is of national security significance such as the collection of the US government personnel data in May last year.

The Ministry of State Security (MSS), which is China’s largest intelligence organisation, suffers from several difficulties in its India work. First, it prioritises internal control within mainland China over overseas work and even the latter is geared towards Taiwan and Hong Kong. Japan and the US come next, and India, despite its proximity and size, is lower down the list. Yet China’s intelligence services are so large that they can still easily match India’s efforts.

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Second, Chinese intelligence still works by “thousand grains”. This is the technique of amalgamating disparate snippets of intelligence accessed from various sources. The Chinese global diaspora provides it with a vast catchment area for human assets. The MSS uses companies, media agencies, and Chinese banks as cover for such activities. In other words, it might want a banker, a journalist, a scientist or a student to provide a piece of information which, by itself, is useless, but could be useful if viewed by an expert in conjunction with other pieces. In India, this approach has not worked, because there are few Chinese expatriates there. China’s other option is to insert its own staff into state-sponsored entities but there are few such institutions in India. For example, there have been only two Confucius Institutes approved for establishment in India, compared with 24 in the United Kingdom and 14 in Japan.

Third, while Pakistan and India’s spy war is facilitated because their most popular languages, Hindi and Urdu, are very similar, and their majority ethnicities are similar in appearance, the Chinese generally look unlike Indians and speak a language which is unlike Hindi. For this reason, MSS asks Pakistan’s spy agency ISI to share its human-gathered Intelligence (known as Humint, as opposed to signals intelligence, gathered by intercepting messages, or Sigint) in exchange for other information gathered by China. This has not proved very successful for China, although Pakistan has benefited from Chinese financial support and for information gathered by China’s hackers.

MSS is a Chinese government department. The Chinese army has an intelligence machine of its own, previously under the General Staff Department (GSD) of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The GSD was disbanded in January this year and its operations were mostly transferred to the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission. In addition, the Strategic Support Force, formed in late last year, incorporates some of the intelligence functions that fell under the GSD. Here we refer to the intelligence functions of the GSD, the Joint Staff Department, and the Strategic Support Force collectively as “PLA Intelligence”.

PLA Intelligence is expected to track the order of battle of the Indian army, its strategies, location, and profiles of commanders. This is not difficult since much information is in public domain but the difficulty lies in getting “first and more” – getting the information before it becomes public, and getting more information than becomes public. However, PLA Intelligence is not bothering to achieve “first and more”, believing that the Indian military’s secrecy is so lax that little of importance could avoid becoming public knowledge.

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The task of PLA Intelligence also covers terrain assessment, identification of command/control centres, plotting vulnerable areas and points, profiling equipment and counter-intelligence. This kind of information cannot only come from public sources, so the PLA has Military Reconnaissance Units (MRUs) in border areas. Sigint is particularly important because Humint operations are so difficult against India.

Recent cases of Chinese espionage in India show just how difficult it is. 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.

Wang Qing was arrested in Dimapur in 2011. She flew to Kolkata from Kunming on a tourist visa as an executive of a Chinese timber company (she should have been on a business visa – even the cover was executed clumsily) and allegedly held a meeting with a Naga insurgent leader. She was deported from India.

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Evidence of more direct interference came after the arrest in 2011 of Anthony Shimray, a Nagaland separatist leader. This revealed China’s links with the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) in Assam and the United National Liberation Front in Manipur, separatists groups in India’s restive north-eastern states. 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. Some claims in the Indian press (for example, that China was willing to sell surface-to-air missiles to Naga separatists) have been discredited by international analysts. But the basic evidence obtained from Shimray, deemed admissible in the Indian court, appears credible. It is not advisable for China to involve itself in supporting potential enemies of the Indian state – especially when it lacks a basic understanding of the politics, tendencies and culture of that state.

The honey-trap technique (or, extracting information by staging romantic encounters) is also commonly used by Chinese intelligence, whether from the MSS or from the PLA. But these encounters must be made to appear genuine, which increases in difficulty the more important the target. One method of reducing this difficulty is by enlisting an amateur involved in a genuine affair with a target. This is easier than it sounds, since the purpose of honey-trapping is usually to provide a one-off opportunity to bug an apartment or to photograph documents. RAW has been the victim of such operations: its low point in China was in 2008 when its station chief, Uma Mishra, was recalled for a bungled investigation into a honey-trap case involving one of her staffers. The embassy reported that the staffer had been marked by two different Chinese agents and had his apartment bugged.

Such Chinese Humint projects have yielded little and are difficult to arrange. Cyber-espionage is easier. China is indulging in large-scale cyber espionage using an army of hackers, drawn from military, intelligence and business. The PLA’s organisation is usually considered stovepiped, but in cyber warfare, it is not. It now links all service branches via a common ICT platform capable of being accessed at many command levels and has created new departments to service its cyber warfare agenda.

In 2009, the University of Toronto’s Information Warfare Monitor Citizen issued its “GhostNet” report detailing intrusion by Chinese hackers into the networks of India’s National Informatics Centre, ministry of external affairs, several Indian embassies and the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. In 2015, a Californian firm, Fire Eye, uncovered a cyber espionage network linked to the Chinese government.

Data obtained, whether by overseas assets or by cyber-spying, must be refined and analysed to be useful. Much is done by the MSS itself. In addition, a reputed foreign policy think tank provides the MSS with intelligence assessments based on input from many sources. This think tank has 21 different departments, but there is no department for India, which comes under a wing on South and South-east Asian studies. That department covers more than 20 countries from Indonesia to Pakistan.

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It is not easy to estimate how many intelligence staff focus on India but by counting analysis documents processed by the MSS that have entered the public domain via this think tank in 2015 alone, we can get a vague idea of priorities. There were 69 dealing with India, compared with 493 for the US and 136 for Japan. Given the secrecy of the departments concerned, this is as good a guide as any. Of those 69, at least some seem to be authored by non-specialists who normally write on other subjects. China ought to be investing more in India specialists.

Pretty RAW

Turning to India’s intelligence services, the most important is RAW, which reports to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Its primary function is gathering foreign intelligence and counter-terrorism. Its name is misleading – “Research and Analysis” makes it sound like a think tank, which it is not and “Wing” makes it sound as if it is a branch of another organisation, when really it is independent.

Like China, India also has a separate intelligence agency run by the military, the equivalent of PLA Intelligence. It is called the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) and is responsible for intelligence for the Indian armed forces. It was created after the Kargil war with Pakistan in 1999.

The RAW had trained covert forces in Bangladesh, helped separatists and then unionists in Sri Lanka, and assisted groups hostile to the pro-China regime in Myanmar. But by the late 1990s, most of RAW’s cloak-and-dagger activities had ceased. Having realised the adverse effects of such actions, India’s leaders refused successive requests from RAW for authorisation of covert operations. This attitude is changing with the present government given its priorities. One of RAW’s most publicised Sigint operations was in 1999 when it intercepted the satellite link from Beijing to Islamabad during a critically important telephone conversation. The operation was not aimed at Chinese officials but at General Parvez Musharraf, the then chief of Pakistan army, who was in Beijing at the time. This recording convinced the international community that the Pakistan army was behind the infiltration in the Kargil war.

RAW does not have the adequate number of agents who are not of Indian ethnicity (just as China has few non-Han agents). It has scant cover for operations in China since so few Indian companies are active in China. The exception is the Tibetan ethnic group. According to the Indian press, China press-gangs Tibetan refugees in Nepal to spy on India, and it is true that a few ethnic Tibetans have been caught spying for China (such as Pema Tsering). But there are far more engaged in spying on China, and are rarely caught.

One agent gave an account of his activities to Indian media. His ethnicity is unknown – a north-Indian name “Raghav Singh” was given but this is not his real name – and he described observing Chinese military activity in October 2012. He and his colleague claimed to have been shot at by the PLA and described escaping through a pine forest, where they were lost for three days before reaching base camp “with a great piece of intelligence”. Ethnic Tibetans from the region close to the Chinese border are employed by Indian intelligence.

Sri Lanka’s The Sunday Times newspaper had alleged that RAW helped unite the opposition to defeat pro-China Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Chinese also hold this view. The Indian government had been concerned about the influence of China on Sri Lankan affairs. But when Rajapaksa called an election, he lost to a coalition led by his one-time cabinet colleague Maithripala Sirisena, who loosened ties with China when he came to power.

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If RAW indeed masterminded regime change in Sri Lanka, this was an impressive piece of work but it could be counter-productive. China’s intelligence services viewed these developments with unease and envy, and there have been calls for China to try the same thing.

India has also succeeded in persuading Myanmar to allow it to operate there. In June last year, Indian paratroopers carried out a strike against insurgents based there. Intelligence that facilitated this mission had been obtained by RAW in cooperation with Myanmar.

If the RAW is to play an effective role against China, it needs to professionalise and develop more expertise in intelligence rather than focusing on pulse-quickening operations led by anti-terrorism agents. It also suffers from breakdowns of cooperation, which affect other arms of the security services. For example, Bihar police refused to cooperate with the Intelligence Bureau (IB) in seeking remand of Yasin Bhatkal (a terrorist leader) in 2013, and the state police refused to join the Advance Security Liaison exercise with the IB and Gujarat police. The creation of the National Technical Research Organisation, the Defence Intelligence Agency and so on, also led to an overlap of agency activities, and turf wars resulted in wasteful expenditure.

Apart from the lack of detailed intelligence on China’s political attitudes and scant ground intelligence, there are gaps in India’s knowledge of China’s capability in the border areas. For example, India is unsure of the locations of DF-21 missiles. The Indian government also often exaggerates the threat from China. In 2005, the Indian government conceded that its own reports of China turning the Coco Islands in Myanmar into a naval base were incorrect.

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To improve professionalism, in 2015, India began to examine the feasibility of recruiting not just for RAW but also the IB and DIA through a single organisation, and to do so on the open market, just as the CIA and MI6 have been doing for some years. If successful, this could help its China intelligence, as the expertise needed is unlikely to be available through traditional RAW recruitment.

China’s intelligence services also need reshaping and are in need of a stronger focus on India. Its problems are different: overconfidence deriving from tales of the 1962 war, in which India was trounced, and a consequential feeling that there is no need to worry about Indian capabilities.

Recruitment for the spy services in China remains restricted. Applications for cadre positions are made typically from China’s schools of politics and law, or from police schools, and many applicants spend their early years on political education to ensure their loyalty to the Communist Party. The MSS misses out on the tremendous pool of talent across China.

The MSS is going through a slow-burning leadership crisis. Three of its vice-ministers have been purged over the last three years: in 2012, Lu Zhongwei; in 2014, Qiu Jinand, in 2015, Ma Jian. The current MSS Chief is Geng Huichang, an official with no field experience. He is due to retire by 2017 and there are not enough choices to succeed Geng. The problem is complicated as purges have affected the efficiency of the MSS by exacerbating an existing situation: a desire to toe the party line at the expense of effective work. This is not a Soviet style “terror”, more a climate of timidity, where the fear is not of execution, but of not being promoted.

Another problem faced by Chinese intelligence is that the fanaticism that once motivated party members in China has gone. Chinese propaganda is not motivated by any kind of idealism now, rather a crude pragmatism has taken over. Political idealism is, in the 21st century, more evident in the CIA than in the MSS.

Despite this apparent apathy in the MSS, the possibility of a US-India military relationship has generated fears of encirclement in Beijing. With or without the MSS’ help, PLA Intelligence will push more aggressively on India. There have even been calls for China to engage in covert operations. At least one Chinese commentator believes China should support the pro-China elements in Sri Lankan politics.

Yet China is a long way from having this capability. One India expert in China pointed out that Chinese intelligence has very few India specialists. They focus on Japan and the US, and then Europe. He himself does not speak Hindi, and yet is one of China’s top experts on India – making him a living example of the lack of specialism. Relying on military intelligence alone is no substitute for a functional and effective civilian intelligence networks.

The two countries are thus in a difficult situation: their size and proximity make it inevitable and necessary that they compete, cooperate, and share, but their ignorance has led them to miss opportunities to profit from each other’s experience, wealth and talents. Ignorance leads to demonisation of the other side. Every step taken by the counterparty is interpreted in the worst light possible and used as a pretext to behave aggressively. Real friendship between the two countries is not yet possible, and so they need to obtain information about each other by other means. The answer can only be found in espionage.

Nicolas Groffman writes on China, practised law in Beijing and Shanghai and is currently a partner at law firm Harrison Clark Rickerbys

This article was first published on Indian Defence Review and has been republished here with permission