Written by: Adhara Ayndrila
It is obvious that the colonial past of South Asia has left the region open to international meddling. Additional loopholes have been created by existing communal and racial conflict, political capture of the elites, and weak state institutions. This reality forces us to examine China’s involvement in the region more closely as this actor has demonstrated a pattern of extracting benefits whilst navigating the domestic politics of countries which should not be their cup of tea, to begin with. The key to solving the geopolitical conundrum in South Asia is to strike a bargain that exchanges political clout for economic benefits, which China, as the world’s largest trader and manufacturer with a sizable foreign exchange reserve, excels at. When China inundates a nation with not only investment but also strategic messages aimed at altering public opinion, there is frequently limited room for counter-narratives, especially in countries with weak civil societies and a lack of independent media. Such strategies cannot easily be mitigated given local experts cannot easily comprehend them. Preventing activism caused by external powers keep falling short as China gets away with heavily sponsoring domestic narratives. The goal is not to isolate China, but to build policies that acknowledge the internal political and economic realities.
India is the most vocal opponent of the Chinese invasion and influence among South Asian countries. China’s influence looks to be restricted due to India’s historical, political, and social ties to other countries. The balance, on the other hand, is increasingly shifting in favor of China, which can act as a counterbalance to India, the regional behemoth. Conflicts between these two actors have existed in the Indo-Pacific area in the form of military war and have not stayed within the realm of a soft political gamble. India and China have been embroiled in a military standoff in eastern Ladakh since early May of last year. After a series of military and diplomatic talks, they concluded the evacuation of troops and weapons from the north and south banks of Pangong Lake in February. As the tensions along the borders expand to India’s neighbor Pakistan, it becomes clear that India has a greater stake in these conflicts. China’s assistance for Pakistan’s territory claims also helps China’s own territorial demands. Pakistan, for its part, obtains the support of a major ally in China, as well as development funding that would otherwise be difficult to come by due to Islamabad’s unstable economic status and political instability. To underline its opposition, India has limited access for Chinese companies, notably in the technology sector, demonstrating growing concerns about the economic, political, and security implications of engaging with Beijing. However, China is an important element of the global supply chain, and India is largely reliant on Chinese imports, which include everything from raw materials to crucial components. Recognizing the gravity of the situation, India went ahead and formed a tighter partnership with the US-led Quad, indicating that India is leaning toward the US in order to counter Chinese assertive military force. As India shifts its focus away from its immediate neighborhood in favor of external balance, China intends to take advantage of the chance to improve ties with South Asian countries and contest India’s dominant position in the region by forming an alternative regional bloc.
The strength of China-Pakistan relations is owing not just to India’s existence, but also to massive Chinese investment in commerce, economy, and military. Chinese-funded economic projects, on the other hand, are far from the only cause of headache in Pakistan. BRI projects might exacerbate underlying governance flaws and add to an already unsustainable debt load by working outside of established guidelines. Beijing is deeply invested in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which would be the possible crown jewel of the BRI, and an overland transit route to the Indian Ocean, despite its desire to avoid shouldering the burden of Pakistan’s issues. Regardless of the extent of Chinese involvement, Pakistan has been continuing to endorse China’s position on all sorts of geopolitical stances. Discussing the scope of bringing awareness within the foreign policy framework of Pakistan in regards to China is nothing but a waste of time as both the actors keep on fuelling each others’ claims. Lastly, China sees Pakistan as a tool to access Afghanistan and achieve security there – the economic development coming from which will become an important stake for China. Crucially, with the United States departing the theater, China may desire greater access to Central Asia via Afghanistan. All of this will be feasible only because of Islamabad’s good offices and the Pakistani establishment’s ties to the Taliban.
Smaller South Asian countries such as Bangladesh, Srilanka and Nepal prioritize economic development, and China is an appealing alternative but not necessarily the best option. The dangers and benefits of initiatives carried out under the framework of the BRI are complicated to consider. On one hand, quicker project timetables and low oversight can offer local leaders quick and apparent success they can brag about, while also feeding their pockets. On the other hand, those projects provide Beijing significant clout, often pose a threat to sovereignty, and frequently add to already-heavy public debt loads.
Since China developed a substantial health budget program, as well as vaccine distribution across the region, Bangladesh’s relations with China have significantly strengthened. Bangladesh has received $350 million in loans from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which is sponsored by China. China has been collaborating in various domains that include trade, e-commerce, infrastructure projects, and even political fronts, at the same time. China has initiated several programs in recent years to create what it refers to as ‘soft influence.’ China’s preferred routes are friendship centers, cultural activities, and engagements with think tanks, newspapers, and local governments around the country. However, to gain domestic acknowledgment China has a better chance by sticking to its image as the economic powerhouse.
Nepal is uniquely important to Beijing as it borders the Tibet Autonomous Region and can help the Chinese government access Tibet. China has successfully pressured Nepal into staying out of the Tibet issue as a whole. It has also been trying to make Nepal’s economy less dependent on India for greater regional power. The political paradigm shift has been taking place at the same pace. As a fellow communist party-run country, Nepal has created scopes for China to get mass public acknowledgment as the ‘model state’. Institutional establishment of Confucianism, environmental cooperation and humanitarian assistance, incorporating Chinese ‘think tanks’, infusing Chinese cultural elements through mainstream media – all of these things point towards the same old tactic China has been using for decades to get control over other states.
Srilanka has been typically mentioned as the prime example of China’s ‘debt trap diplomacy’ with references to mega-projects such as the Hambantota Port and Colombo Port City project. However, the political and economic ties are way more diverse and indicate mutual intent from both countries. The Rajapaksas in power particularly benefited from China’s backup since many in the international community wanted to hold them accountable for human rights violations committed during the civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This does not necessarily mean that the main opposition parties challenge China’s credibility in the region. China’s role as a lender, investor, trader, builder, and partner is intrinsically tied to Srilanka’s economic progress. Beijing has poured money into as many development projects as necessary to suit Colombo’s needs, resulting in an inexhaustible supply of goodwill among the inhabitants. As a result, regional skepticism of the United States has reached an all-time high. Overall, China has succeeded in bridging the gap between the two countries’ previous struggles, assuring Sri Lanka of parity with them in terms of development. This sentiment has won over the negative narrative that has surrounded debt trap difficulties.
At a time when regional cooperation institutions and organizations are dwindling, China’s goal of having the final say on matters affecting South Asian countries may appear to be a plausible option. A scenario like this might exacerbate geopolitical and economic conflict in the region between India’s historic power and China’s new, accelerating influence. China also hopes to oppose the West’s attempt to isolate it on a global scale in the aftermath of a pandemic by launching such projects. Hence, India must be more attentive than ever before in reviving the process under existing regional organizations such as SAARC and BIMSTEC in order to defend its interests and the region’s general prosperity. Otherwise, the historical regional integrity would be lost in the process of shifting to a China-led world.
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- China’s Influence on Conflict Dynamics in South Asia. (2020). United States Institute of Peace. https://www.usip.org/publications/2020/12/chinas-influence-conflict-dynamics-south-asia
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