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C3S Book Review: The China Factor: Beijing’s Expanding Engagement in Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bangladesh

By Suprithi Sudharsanan



Image Courtesy: Routledge


Article: 17/2023


Shantanu Roy-Chaudhury, The China Factor: Beijing’s Expanding Engagement in Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, (Routledge), ISBN: 9781032405452


A comprehensive analysis of China’s relationship with India’s neighbors (excluding Pakistan), Shantanu Roy Chaudary’s book makes for a strong case that the country’s engagements with other South Asian nations have an Indian angle to them. Beijing’s engagements are dominated by Xi’s ambitious project -BRI. Using it as a tool for greater global integration (akin to the ‘Silk Road Days’), Xi has managed to drive a wedge among countries globally. This mega project is a lucrative avenue for China in terms of garnering support for its stances on domestic and international issues with diplomatic persuasion alone. An example of this was Greece blocking the EU’s statements that were critical of China’s policies. Such incidents unfolding in the international domain are of particular concern to India as Beijing looks to persuade its South Asian neighbors to adopt Pro Beijing and Anti Delhi views similarly.


Chaudary has broadly adopted a five-way approach for each country in his examination of ties with China-Political front, the Economic front, the Defence front, India’s ties with the country, and the Implications of China’s presence for the former. The cardinal virtue of the book is its constant references to statements by diplomats, leaders, and think tanks; that help the reader appreciate the nuances of diplomacy and the depth of the issue at hand. (statements such as...“It is manifestly visible that your friendship with us is no more genuine and candid, instead, you use our relations to achieve your ambition of becoming the world power at the stake of the lives of our innocent people…”) Another aspect which helped understand India’s concerns was the use of maps to point out the areas that China had invested in and how close they were to India-thus offering a strategic perspective to the discussion (..renewable energy project was awarded to a Chinese company on three islands in the Palk Bay, which are less than 50 km from Tamil Nadu…although awaiting final decision).


Mired in corruption and deceit, China had been instrumental in cancelling India-led projects at the increasing expense of these small nations. Beijing has coaxed them into taking loan after loan under eccentric and obtuse repayment policies. Oddly, Sri Lanka and Maldives agreed to a clause to allow for sovereign guarantees for private parties. This, added to existing investments in the infrastructure and development projects by China left Sri Lanka scrambling when it ran out of foreign reserves for imports and interest payments. An eerily similar situation is currently unfolding in the Maldives... “.In prioritizing economic engagement, Malé did not calculate the risks involved or foresee the potential economic fallout that could take place, and immediately welcomed Beijing’s overtures and the BRI..” Many SOEs undertaking these projects are directly linked to the CCP and are of immense concern for these small countries.


Albeit not explicitly stated, the author hints that BRI has opened a potential alternative for China to exercise military rights in ports and areas developed by it in these nations. Given that Maldives is an archipelago, Beijing has created ample leverage by becoming a major player in the economy, whose actions determine economic welfare and defence security for Maldives. China has also managed to make inroads into Bangladesh. Despite a borderless relationship, it has managed to compete and be awarded some development projects in the country - no doubt challenging India’s influence. Its construction of road networks and ports-which allow it to reduce dependence on the Malacca strait-have not gone unnoticed by New Delhi.


China’s checkered relations with Myanmar have not deterred it from constructing major oil and gas pipelines. The current government in Myanmar is wary of Beijing’s overtures and seeks to maintain a balanced relationship, not at the expense of the country’s welfare. The author also highlights the detrimental role played by Myanmar citizens of Chinese origin, creating a conundrum for the stakeholders involved in bilateral relations.


In a largely engaging read, a relevant and valuable addition to the discussion is allocating a larger section for addressing how India-China ties have been affected on their own bilateral economic, political and defence fronts due to Beijing’s engagements. Another aspect that could have also been explored in detail is the role of other South East Asian countries seeking to counter China’s influence- who also maintain good relations with India-and how their own engagements in the South Asian region are based on Beijing’s plans.


The governments of the smaller countries in South Asia, initially dependent on India, sought to reduce New Delhi’s monopoly by welcoming China’s advances. Unfortunately, it has been detrimental to the countries’ economic situation- a negative trade balance with China and mostly unending loans and interest payments. Beijing has also increasingly tried to (and has been to some extent successful) in making these countries dependent on it for defense equipment too. Bangladesh and Myanmar have been cautious in their interactions, having learned from Sri Lanka and Maldives. That does not make India’s job any less difficult in trying to curb Beijing’s growing presence in the region. In recent years, a proactive foreign policy (Neighborhood First, et al) has helped alleviate ties. The author’s conclusion -as well as the reader’s-is that India needs to accept China’s presence and act accordingly so that activities detrimental to Indian interests do not take place on its neighbors’ soil.


(Suprithi Sudharsanan is a Research Intern at C3S. The views expressed in this book review are those of the author and does not reflect the views of C3S.)

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