China’s rise as a major global economy and military force has been marked by its desire to occupy an unchallenged position in Asia, and to redesign the existing liberal international order. For that to happen, South Asia is hugely significant for China, so the Chinese establishment has intensified efforts to boost engagement with the region.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has already visited the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and China has infused billions of dollars into promoting development and basic infrastructure in South Asian countries.
The Xi government has also focused on integrating China into South Asia through the Belt and Road Initiative. With the exceptions of Bhutan and India, all South Asian countries have become a part of the initiative.
Consequently, Beijing has been developing a US$64 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and has fostered security and defense ties with Pakistan. Last month, they signed a memorandum of understanding to renew their strategic partnership during a visit by Chinese Minister of National Defense and People’s Liberation Army General Wei Fenghe (魏鳳和).
China promised to invest US$24 billion during Xi’s visit to Bangladesh in 2016, and it provides military hardware and equipment to the nation. Aiming to bring it into its fold, Beijing does not charge duty on 97 percent of Bangladesh’s exports to China.
China-Nepal relations have undergone a transformation under Xi and Nepalese Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli. In 2017, Chinese companies announced an investment of US$8.3 billion in Nepal, with then-Chinese minister of defense and state councilor General Chang Wanquan (常萬全) offering a grant of US$32.3 million to the Nepalese Army to improve its capacity to deal with natural disasters.
China now has a dominant role in the Maldivian economy, with large investments in its infrastructure and tourism, and it has also stepped up to the plate as a mediator in Afghanistan. Sri Lanka is already leaning toward the Xi regime.
Undoubtedly, China has been expanding its footprint in South Asia for good reason. There are several factors driving China’s South Asia policy.
China has a long-standing border dispute with India, and considers India as its rival. At the same time, Xi’s government is extremely upset with India for providing asylum to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other Tibetans, and for its refusal to join the Belt and Road Initiative.
India’s renewed focus on improving ties with ASEAN and Taiwan, and its transformed relationship with the US have added to China’s uneasiness.
Consequently, China has adopted a three-pronged strategy against India.
With the aim of unilaterally changing the border in the disputed region, China has increased assertive posturing against India in the area. The Doklam crisis in 2017 and ongoing tensions between the forces of the two sides in the Ladakh sector are classic examples of China’s bullying behavior.
China has captured a major portion of the Indian market and India's overall trade deficit with China stood at US$ 48.64 billion in 2020. Beijing is also trying to exploit anti-India feelings in other South Asian countries.
South Asia is one of the least economically integrated regions in the world, so China views it as a major market for its goods. China’s trade with India’s South Asian neighbors has reached US$60.41 billion.
South Asia is also of huge importance to China for strategic and security reasons. For instance, Pakistan’s location at the confluence of Central Asia, the Middle East and South Asia is considered by China as crucial to expanding its reach to these regions and beyond for trade, natural and energy resources, and security purposes.
It is the combination of these factors that led China to develop Gwarda Port, connecting South Asia to Central Asia, the Middle East and even Africa. This port also connects Afghanistan and Iran, and is at the entrance of the Strait of Hormuz, which is a main sea route for global oil supply.
As 80 percent of oil imports to China from Gulf countries pass through the Strait of Malacca, and the Chinese establishment fears that the strait could be blocked by India during a conflict, Gwadar Port provides China with an alternate route to secure a supply of energy.
It is in this context that China has focused on connecting Gwadar Port to the city of Kashgar in Xinjiang through the Karakoram Highway, and the laying of a proposed oil pipeline from Gwadar to Xinjiang, which would significantly reduce the cost and time for China to import oil from the Gulf and Africa.
As state-owned China Overseas Port and Holding Co has already taken over the port’s operating rights, China is also in a position to install an electronic surveillance system to monitor the activities of India and the US, and shipment traffic in the Indian Ocean.
However, mindful of the limitations of Gwadar Port, China is also developing ports in Bangladesh, Iran, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and elsewhere under its so-called “string of pearls” strategy, in addition to massively modernizing the People’s Liberation Army Navy to dominate the Indian Ocean.
While the international community led by the US has strongly criticized China for putting more than 1 million Muslims in re-education camps in Xinjiang, China is using strong ties with Pakistan to protect its image among Muslim countries.
It is also in China’s interests to ensure that a sense of security prevails over acts of terrorism in South Asia if the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is to be completed and the Silk Road revived.
The prevalence of insecurity caused by terrorist activities in Afghanistan would also result in security concerns in Xinjiang. It is for this reason that China has been holding talks with the Taliban to prevent any unfavorable situations if US troops withdraw completely from Afghanistan.
China’s involvement in the region does not concern India alone. Its debt trap strategy has affected India’s South Asian neighbors. Thus, while China has had control of Hambantota Port for 99 years, the Maldives is struggling to pay back huge loans from Beijing, and some Pakistanis have raised concerns about China’s imperialist motives regarding Pakistan.
Nepal, too, has fallen into China’s trap, evident by the political impasse in the country.
While India has continued its efforts to stand up to China’s expansionist strategy in the region, other South Asian countries need to realize China’s evil desire before the dragon swallows them up.
Sumit Kumar is a former Ministry of Foreign Affairs visiting fellow at National Chengchi University and an assistant professor at Amity University in Noida, India.
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