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China's Influence in India's Neighbourhood–Part II

[Extracts of the paper, presented by Col. R.Hariharan, at the India-Taiwan interaction, jointly organised by the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the Federation of Chambers of Commerce & Industry-Tamil Nadu Chapter at Chennai on August 1, 2008. This is in continuation of China’s Influence in India’s Neighbourhood- Part I published earlier.]

China’s South Asia strategy

The Chinese have tried to maintain cordial and correct relations with India despite frequent reiteration of their territorial claims. China has also been expanding the areas of cooperation with India on issues affecting the interest of both the countries. A small beginning has been made in conducting joint training exercise between two armies of the two countries. This strategy has enabled China to keep India’ concerns at bay, even as it increased its influence in India’s neighbourhood. Though the shadow of India continues to loom large over its neighbours, China has succeeded in improving bilateral relations with each one of them.

The very size of India and its seemingly all pervading soft power kindle a sense of disquiet if not fear among some of India’s neighbours. This ‘Indian bogey’ is also used as a pet ploy in the political gamesmanship of countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Though India had taken remedial measures, for historical reasons the ‘bogey’ is likely to continue to hobble Indian articulation in the region. China appears to have leveraged itself as the answer to ward off the Indian enigma in these countries.

For instance, Pakistan and Bangladesh have inherited a historical sense of insecurity about India after Pakistan was created in 1947. This provided a convenient foothold for China to step in. India’s economic domination of its neighbours has invariably resulted in lopsided trade imbalance tilted in India’s favour. Building better trade relations with China offers a way for them to balance this tilt. There is widespread fear of Indian cultural melange submerging the national and ethnic identity of some of the small neighbours. These fears are compounded by the physical threat posed by India’s large armed forces.. In the case of Nepal and Sri Lanka this fear is latent though they have enjoyed friendly ties with India most of the time.

China appears to have prioritised its relationship with Pakistan and Bangladesh occupying the top slot. These two nations have built symbiotic relations with China over the years resulting in the creation of infrastructural and military assets that would come in handy for China, when required. They are followed by Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal, and Maldives in the Chinese order of priority.

Development of China-Afghanistan relations is hobbled by two factors: China’s multi-faceted relationship with Pakistan, and Kabul’s close relationship with India. Afghanistan has always enjoyed a cordial relationship with India, except perhaps during the period of Taliban rule. Their relationship is driven by historicity as much as their strategic synergies where they see Pakistan ranged against them. India’s liberal development aid to the Karzai government and the involvement of Indian development task force in executing vital infrastructure projects in Afghanistan underline the strong bonds being built between them. Moreover, Afghanistan’s survival preoccupation while combating Jihadi terrorism and the all pervasive American presence there has left limited space for China to develop better relationship.

But despite this setting, Afghanistan remains a vital part of China’s energy infrastructure linking China with Pakistan, Iran and the oil rich Central Asian nations. So it came as no surprise when China secured in May 2008 the $3.5 billion Aynak copper field project in the remote Logar Province, making it the largest foreign direct investment project in the Afghan history. The Aynak copper field probably contains ore worth up to $88 billion. Significantly, the Chinese bid included the cost of building a 400 MW coal based power plant and a railway line from western China through Tajikistan and Afghanistan to Pakistan. China’s readiness to make such a large investment in a troubled region underscores its strategic significance for her, apart from its value in developing Western China.

Bhutan has always enjoyed cordial relations with India. China has territorial claims in Bhutan which would probably be settled only when India and China resolve their border dispute. This ‘India factor’ and Bhutan’s strong religious and cultural affinity with Tibet appear to be in the way of China’s efforts to enhance its influence. However, in the coming years this could change when Bhutan from royalty ushers in multiparty democracy.

China’s effort to increase its influence has three facets – economic, military, and political. The emphasis and combinations vary from country to country conditioned by situational priorities. Both Pakistan and Bangladesh are visible examples of China building a win-win relationship using political, economic and military leverages.

The economic aspects include extending loans on low interest and commercial terms, aid, project financing, infrastructure financing etc. Chinese aided projects invariably have visible national impact. Some of these projects include the Gwadar port complex in Pakistan and the proposed port project at Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and the construction of six vital bridges across major rivers in Bangladesh.

Most of these projects have the potential to add to China’s strategic access and mobility in the region. For example the new extension of the Xinjiang railway up to Kashgar about 500 kilometers (via the Karakoram highway) from the China-Pakistan border is complimentary to the project to widen the Karakoram highway. It is significant that China is also involved in the construction of a rail line to link Gwadar with Pakistan-Iran railway line. Similarly, the extension of railway line in Tibet from Lhasa to Indian border region has strategic connotations to the Chinese assistance in developing lateral communications in Bangladesh.

China’s military initiatives in the region are quite a few. Briefly, it comes in three forms: weapons sale, military training, and providing access to weapon technology. Of course military relationship between Pakistan and China goes much beyond these limitations and include sharing of nuclear and missile technology. These are well documented. China used Pakistan’s urge to develop nuclear capability to build enormous strategic bonds that have grown over the years.

India’s military intervention was the key factor that enabled Bangladesh gain independence in 1971. When Bangladeshis were fighting for independence China had supported Pakistan. But it had no hesitation in changing its stance when the independent Bangladesh came into being. When a military coup overthrew the Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s regime, China got cosy with the military dictatorship. With the Bangladesh armed forces equipped now mostly with weapons and armament of Chinese origin, China is firmly established in the country’s strategic security initiatives.

As a result India finds it difficult to involve Bangladesh even in projects that are useful to both the countries and the region. Large scale Indian investments in Bangladesh have been discouraged while China has been awarded a project connected with the development of Chittagong port. The key to China’s success in Bangladesh is the fear of Indian domination (‘hegemony’ to use the ideologically correct term).

We see this happening all over in Sri Lanka. China is using the space provided by India’s reluctance to sell weapons to Sri Lanka for political reasons to increase its influence in Sri Lanka’s strategic spectrum. So the possibility of the Hambantota project ending up as a remake of the Gwadar episode in Pakistan is very much there.

China’s strategy in Nepal has probably been reworked to handle the Maoist dominated democratic regime now in power. China had supported King Gyanendra of Nepal when he was fighting the Maoists. When the Maoists overthrew him, China changed sides overnight. It increased the aid to the Maoist regime by 50 percent to 120 million Yuan over the 80 million Yuan given to the Gyanendra regime. The democratic regime’s readiness to suppress the peaceful protest of Tibetan refugees in Kathmandu recently when the Olympic flame was brought in showed its readiness to please the Chinese. If China’s influence expands rapidly in Nepal, it holds serious portends for New Delhi’s strategic security calculations. .

Having gained a strong foothold in India’s neighbourhood, China is poised to increase its strategic clout enormously in this region. This is likely to haunt India’s strategic security planners in the coming years.

(The writer,Col. R Hariharan, is a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies.

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