China’s interest in South Asia has increased considerably. Its fresh bid for full membership to SAARC reflects South Asia’s growing importance for Beijing’s foreign policy agenda. This makes the topic of China-South Asia-India really important.
This article will give you a comprehensive analysis about China’s ventures into South Asia , the reasons behind them and how India is affected by it.
[su_heading size=”28″ margin=”0″]Why China is wading into South Asia in a big way? [/su_heading]
♦ The forces of globalization have resulted in trade between countries across the globe. China’s growing presence in South Asia is part and parcel of its global reach of economic activities. South Asian countries offer plenty of opportunities. Free cross-border movement of goods, services and the abundance of labour translate into adequate economic gains. Analysts have pointed out, that, distinctive regional challenges also posit China due to the presence and growth of India as a major geopolitical power. To balance these, China has been maneuvering its soft diplomacy skills encompassing economic, military, cultural , diplomatic aspects.
♦ One of China’s major concerns in the region is the Indian Ocean, owing to the sea routes which are the world’s busiest trading sea route today and China imports around 80 percent of its energy needs from there.
♦ The political turmoils in South Asia offers a plethora of opportunities for external forces to garner a foothold in the region. The smaller countries in the region like Sri Lanka, Nepal could not have asked for a more benevolent partner like China who helps in their reconstruction activities and adequately rewards them for the strategic advantages they offer without raising issues such as human rights or democracy.
♦ China faces challenges from the South Asian region, including concerns about instability in Pakistan and extremism. But South Asia also provides economic opportunity and strategic benefits, especially as China seeks a greater role in the Indian Ocean. Thus, China has been developing economic and political links with SAARC member states.
♦ Despite India’s displeasure, a Chinese nuclear-powered submarine is docked at the Colombo port. It is connotative of China trying to establish its military presence in South Asia. Conventionally, China is not considered a south Asian state. The SAARC membership will give China a South Asian identity, with which it can play a more authoritative insider role in the region.
♦ Beijing has tried to use the initiatives of Maritime Silk Road, One belt One Road to establish a more integrated relationship with its neighbours by building transportation facilities. China needs a multilateral mechanism like SAARC to accelerate efforts to construct the One Belt One Road in South Asia. The recently launched Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) along with SAARC is considered to be an ideal platform for China to garner support.
♦ China’s motivation to reach out to SAARC comes from its concerns about India’s eastward policy. Modi government has renamed the “Look East” policy as “Act East”, in an attempt to build a deeper engagement with East Asia and Southeast Asia. India and Vietnam are cooperating in oil and gas exploration in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. The sheer willingness of India to play an active role in the South China Sea, where China has overlapping territorial claims with several countries has spooked them. The India-US joint statement, issued during Modi’s state visit to Washington, was categorical about the situation in South china sea. China has been wary of India-Japan increasing strategic relationship. China had raised eyebrows when India invited Japan along with USA to participate in the annual Exercise Malabar in the Western Pacific. Considering these, it is believed that China has sought to develop a South Asia policy as a counteraction to put pressure on New Delhi and counter India’s eastward expansion.
♦ China has been seeking full membership of SAARC arguing that it has a common border with five SAARC member countries.
[su_heading size=”28″ margin=”0″]China’s growing interest- How has China wielded soft power with South Asian countries so far?[/su_heading]
China’s engagement with the subcontinent has rapidly grown. I have listed in brief, how China has been using soft diplomacy to engage SAARC nations across borders.
- This alliance is significant geo-politically. The strong military ties primarily aim to counter Indian and American influence. Pakistan’s military depends heavily on Chinese weapons. The supply of conventional weapons systems, nuclear weapons technology and missiles to Pakistan is considered to be China’s policy of “strategic containment” of India.
- China is the largest investor in Pakistan’s Gwadar Deep Sea Port, which is strategically located at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz. It is viewed warily by both India and USA as a possible launchpad for the Chinese Navy, giving them the ability to launch submarines and warships in the Indian Ocean.
- China has been helping Pakistan to develop infrastructure through the building of power plants, roads and communication lines.
- Pak-China Economic Corridor is under construction. It will connect Pakistan with China and the Central Asian countries with highway connecting Kashgar to Khunjrab and Gwadar.
- China has increased its economics aid and investment in Afghanistan, specially the development Aynak Copper mines. China is also keen on major investments in the war-torn country’s rich minerals and oil sectors. Remember, India is developing Hajigak iron ore mines.
- With the U.S. and NATO largely withdrawing, the new administration in Kabul is looking for new partners to fill the vacuum. China also wants a peaceful Afghanistan because their cooperation is being motivated by Beijing’s interests in maintaining stability in Xinjiang. China and Afghanistan have agreed to step up crackdown on the training camps of Uighur militants active in China’s restive Xinjiang province.
- Xinjiang, which had long benefited from trans-Karakoram links with Pakistan, is now exploring similar connectivity with Afghanistan. As China develops the historic city of Kashgar in Xinjiang as a regional hub, the idea of a Pamir Group bringing Xinjiang, Afghanistan and Pakistan together into a regional forum is gaining ground.
- Chinese President Xi Jinping paid state visit to Sri Lanka recently.
- Chinese infrastructure projects are intended to help Sri Lanka become a regional trading hub. China has built an oil refinery, International Airport and International Container Port in Hambantota. It has also built a huge container terminal in Colombo and is developing the Colombo Port City Project.
- China has provided Sri Lanka with several weapons systems. Sri Lanka has hosted Chinese submarines and warships.
- China has also invested greatly in Special Economic zones of Sri Lanka. China has also been emphasising on a Southern Maritime Silk Route across the Indian Ocean.
- Nepal is assuming a new geo-strategic eminence as buffer zone between India and China, particularly for the defence build up in Tibetan plateau.
- Nepal has the most accessible entry point to Tibet and it has the second largest Tibetan refugee community in the world. China has traditionally alleged that international forces are operating against China through Tibetans based in Nepal.
- China has invested in mega projects of power, transport like Arniko Highway in Kodari, which is a border crossing from Nepal into Tibet.
- Nepal has been wooed by China for infrastructural development and a major role in the development of Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha. China is assisting in the construction of a railway line linking its border with Lhasa and thereafter joining China’s national railway network. It is touted that the path is being cleared by China to have the capabilities to transport troops speedily via Nepal.
- The Yunnan province of China seeks greater economic engagement with Bangladesh for access to the Bay of Bengal. Both Beijing and Dhaka have been negotiating a number of mega infrastructure projects.
- China also is on developing a deep sea port at Chittagong. Strategically more important will be the deep-sea port at Sonadia which will also come up with Chinese investment. Also, China plans construction of a dual gauge railway line from Chittagong to Cox Bazar where from the proposed deep sea port at Sonadia will not be far away. It will provide China with an excellent base to monitor and control situations in the shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean.
- Designed to link China and India with Bangladesh and Myanmar, the BCIM project will take the form of an economic corridor that will run from Kunming to Kolkata and then extend all the way to and through Mandalay in Myanmar, and Dhaka and Chittagong in Bangladesh. In terms of geographical proximity and symbolic significance, Kunming serves the most convenient regional platform for China to strengthen and deepen its economic ties with South Asia.
- China and Bhutan do not have formal diplomatic relations.
- They have a long standing boundary dispute. Recently, China warmed up to the idea of reaching to an amicable solution to their boundary problems.
- Bhutan and China share 470 kilometres of border, which is also close to India’s ‘chicken’s neck’ — the narrow Siliguri corridor which links the northeast. Any settlement of the Bhutan-China border dispute would be significant for India as Chumbi Valley, a vital tri-junction between Bhutan, India and China is just about 500 km from Siliguri corridor.
- Chinese President Xi Jinping paid state visit to Maldives recently.
- In Male, Xi spoke of a southern maritime Silk Road to increase trade across the Indian Ocean. Maldives has been courted with huge assistance for infrastructure development.
- Maldives has been used by major powers in the past. The geo-strategic location of Maldives had drawn the attention of maritime powers during the colonial era well as the Cold War period. China is trying to make inroads into the Maldives to fulfill its strategic objectives.
As we all know, China has been seeking a permanent presence in the Indian Ocean through a “string of pearls”, or a network of ports. Study the map carefully to know the locations.
[su_heading size=”28″ margin=”0″]What are the implications for India?[/su_heading]
When India looks eastwards to Burma it sees China’s strong presence, when it gazes south towards Sri Lanka it sees a growing relationship that has led to China building ports and to the west it is all too aware of China close ties with Pakistan. Indeed, China has been increasing its interaction with countries across the region.
China as a potential full member of SAARC , will it have repercussions on India? The growing presence of China in South Asia has irked India, for sure. Why? The probable reasons for all this could be:
♦ China is expanding its sphere of regional influence by surrounding India with a string of pearls that could eventually undermine India’s pre-eminence and potentially rise to an economic and security threat.
♦ Presently, India is encircled by hostile nations that are friendly with China. India cites strategic and security concerns including China being Pakistan’s all weather friend and its policy of encircling India. We do not have a past with China to be proud of. Also, growing ties with Nepal increase India’s security concerns on its eastern borders.
♦ If China enters the SAARC grouping, its dominance in the region would be shaken, and also that smaller countries in the grouping will find a countervailing force in China. India wants SAARC to remain a South Asian grouping and by expanding it to include countries outside the region, SAARC may lose its original mandate and character. Though it is opined that India should back Beijing’s membership in the SAARC since China has supported India’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Other SAARC nations want China to be included as a member.
♦ China’s entry into this region will not only affect its regional politics but will also have geopolitical implications. India was eyed as the bulwark to stop China expanding into South and South East Asia by the West. Remember India is the pivot to Asia.
♦ India is losing out on potential investment due to Chinese presence. For example, Sri Lanka had first offered the building of Hambantota port to India. India rejected it.
Some analysts argue otherwise. They insist India could benefit with China being a SAARC member. Let us see how.
♦ China is already engaging with South Asian countries bilaterally in a way that excludes India. If China is a SAARC member, India too could benefit from that engagement. India and its companies, after all, can potentially benefit from Chinese investment in South Asia, especially if it improves connectivity, livelihoods and, ideally, stability.
♦ The significance of the geo-political reality is that major South Asian rivers originate in the high Tibetan plateau. Perhaps the most important of them is the Yarlung Zangbo river. Such being the reality, there is ample room for cooperation between China and South Asia in water resources.
♦ A shortage of oil and gas resources in the SAARC region makes it highly dependent on imports. China could join SAARC nations in building joint pipelines and integrated power grids, which could also be connected to the grids in Chinese provinces bordering SAARC.
♦ If we consider Myanmar and Bangladesh, the insurgency problem in the North East States of India cannot be controlled effectively without their help . India should engage more with her neighbours bilaterally to overcome these issues.
India cannot ignore these challenges. Balancing Chinese power across the Indian Ocean will require close interaction with littoral states and powers like the US and Japan. Any response in our immediate neighbourhood will require a judicious use of carrot and stick.
Being the dominant power in South Asia, India should probably manage China’s presence with a mindset of open regionalism. Despite blocking China’s full entry to SAARC, Delhi should consider over the possibilities of making China’s activities in South Asia complementary to India’s own neighbourhood policy. If in future India reconsiders her stance, it is imminently possible for India and China to coexist constructively in the region through SAARC by advancing mutual benefits and at the same time ensuring development in the countries of SAARC. This would require political will not just from India, but from other SAARC nations as well.
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