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Engaging Beyond Borders – China and India in South Asia

[This paper is an attempt to promote some fresh thinking on the subject and to generate an objective, academic discussion – which is the basic purpose of a colloquium.]

Conventional wisdom would have dictated that the breakup of the Soviet Union and the consequent end of the Cold War would lead towards a unipolar world order, with USA being the sole superpower and the world’s policeman. However, the moves (in different time frames and on different paths) of China and India away from rigid ideology-bound economic policies (and the resulting market oriented “liberalisation”, albeit with such controls as considered necessary by each government) have unleashed the vast economic potential of the two countries and have created two of the world’s fastest growing economies. “Globalisation” of the economy, initiated by the industrialised and developed countries (in the hope of converting the vanished colonial political power to economic power over the developing countries), has boomeranged and put the western economies under great pressure due to competition from countries like Brazil, Russia, India and China. The world-wide recession of the last few years, largely precipitated by the actions of uncontrolled (and unprincipled?) financial institutions in the developed countries, has had the natural consequence of the economically more stable and strong countries contending to become additional poles in an emerging multi-polar world economic order. In the process, the emerging powers have to adopt pro-active policies in countries of their interest, beyond their borders and their regions. In this paper, we will try to have a brief look at the way China and India are engaging in the countries of South Asia.

The steady and rapid growth of China’s economic and military power, as well as an increasing assertiveness by China in her international relations, are being watched by policymakers and analysts in many countries around the world, with some justifiable apprehension. However, perceptions about the impact of China’s rise on the future of the political, economic and security situation in Asia are varied. Some believe that China’s policies in the region are basically a part of the overall attempt to challenge US supremacy. Some others are quite wary and suspicious of China’s long-term (feared to be hegemonistic) ambitions in the region and the world. It is strange that there seem to be very few who are willing to consider that China has only been relentlessly pursuing what it considers to be her national interests, though perhaps with little consideration of the effects her policies and activities may have on the interests of other countries.

China has had a single-minded focus on growth since 1980s. It clearly recognises the need for “a peaceful international environment” for the effective pursuit of its economic and strategic goals, as stated in the State Council White Paper of 2005. It has been seeking to assure other countries that its increasing economic strength provides an opportunity for its neighbours, rather than being a threat. At the same time, China’s continuing efforts to modernise and improve its naval and military power makes the neighbours more worried.A somewhat cynical and extreme point of view, articulated by Charles Krauthammer [ November 2010] is that “modern China is the Germany of a century ago – a rising, expanding, have-not power seeking its place in the sun. The story of the first half of the 20th century was Europe’s attempt to manage Germany’s rise. We know how that turned out. The story of the next half-century will be how Asia accommodates and/or contains China’s expansion”. On the issue of “containing” China, Robert Grenier, a former CIA chief of station in Islamabad, wrote in Al Zajeera (13 November 2010), “US promotion of India as a strategic counterweight to China, depending upon who is propounding it, is either disingenuous or simply wrong-headed. India harbours distrust of China as a result of past border disputes and the latter’s close ties with Pakistan. Those concerns are not reciprocated in anything approaching full measure on the Chinese side. Chinese hegemonic designs are focused on East and South-East Asia, not some minor enclaves in the Himalayas”.

One could savour a contrary (Chinese) view by looking at the translation and analysis by D.S.Rajan [Director of the Chennai Centre for Chinese Studies :, Paper No. 650 dated 7 Nov 2010] of an article written (in Chinese language) in May 2010 by Professor Zhao Gancheng, Director of South Asia Studies, Shanghai Institute for International Studies. While alleging  that India’s current policies are aimed at realising ‘hegemony’ in South Asia; the professor claimed that the goal of China’s South Asia policy will always be in favour of maintaining regional peace and stability and is related to the emergence of a regional balance of power and the gaining of ‘strategic autonomy’ by all South Asian nations. He demanded that India’s strategic autonomy should not be detrimental to the corresponding autonomy of other regional powers and that India must rectify its periphery policy, to enable other regional nations to accept its dominant position. In his analysis, Rajan notes that China is undoubtedly showing a new assertiveness in Asia, dictated by its perceived need to protect its ‘core interests’, with a greater emphasis on sovereignty. He also noted that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had himself pointed out in September 2010 that China is seeking to expand its influence in South Asia at India’s expense. This seemingly mutual lack of trust, I feel, has to be addressed by the leadership of both China and India.

There is the possibility that China’s new assertiveness is an effort to redefine the borders of China’s economic and diplomatic clout in the present international scenario. Personally, I feel that this possibility needs to be considered and studied by academics, analysts and policy makers.

B.Raman, a renowned strategic analyst [ Nov 2010], says that due to China’s activities in Tibet and presence in Gilgit-Baltistan area, India has many reasons to worry about Chinese policies and capabilities. He warns that, by playing them down, the Government of Dr. Manmohan Singh is repeating the mistake of Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1950s. It suits the Chinese designs that the international community is given the impression that everything is normal in Sino-Indian relations and that the Government of India is not unduly worried over the Chinese activities.

The situation in South Asia is more complicated than in other regions of Asia, largely due to the asymmetry in the area, population, political stability, economic and military strength etc. of the countries in the region. At least four (Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) of India’s neighbours experience what I call the Trudeau syndrome. [It may be recalled that Pierre Trudeau, then Canadian Prime Minister, had told the Press Club in Washington DC on 25 March 1969 that “Living next to the United States is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast; one is affected by every twitch and grunt. You always wonder if it will roll over on you.”] They have sought to overcome their proximity-induced mistrust of India and hedge their relationship with India with some kind of balancing act with China. Pakistan, whose national identity seems to depend on an anti-India stance, found a ready ally in China and has a virtual military alliance with it. Nepal started its balancing act nearly fifty years ago, Bangladesh much later and Sri Lanka more recently. The problem is compounded by the oft-expressed view that India, which already suffers from the disadvantage of having to deal with the backlog of a number of bilateral issues with these countries, feels that their being friendly with China is almost equivalent to being unfriendly towards India.


The Nepalese Maoist leader Prachanda has quoted the Chinese leadership as telling him that Nepal should sort out its problems with India, without involving Beijing. [N.Sathiya Moorthy, Daily Mirror, Colombo, 15 November 2010] The advice was in response to Prachanda’s hopes that China would participate in a tripartite strategic effort to address the security concerns of India and China in the Nepalese context. This is not the first or only time that China has adopted a pragmatic approach to Indo-Pak conflicts. China, which had issued an ultimatum to India during the 1965 “war” with Pakistan, declined the new-found US friend’s suggestion for joining forces with Pakistan at the height of the ‘Bangladesh War’ in 1971; and it kept out of the ‘Kargil war’ when the strategic Pakistani ally wanted it to join forces, if only to harass their common adversary. Yet, this is the first time that any “ally” of China in India’s neighbourhood has talked so frankly about Beijing’s advice in dealing with India.


President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been careful in delineating the development assistance flowing from China from Sri Lanka’s strategic ties with India. “All others are friends, India is a relation,” he has been fond of saying. Other major political parties that have ambitions and hopes of leading a government in Colombo have reflected similar views.

Ever since the epithet ‘string of pearls’ gained currency, there have been some concerns among strategic analysts and commentators about China’s help and assistance in the construction of the Hambantota port and the associated complex. Hambontota is in the constituency of President Rajpaksa. The entire project is to be built in four phases over fifteen years; and would include oil and gas terminals, berths and port facilities. There were earlier reports that Indian companies had been lukewarm about participation in the first phase of the project. However, there is a recent report that Sri Lanka would like India to participate in the second phase. Although China and Sri Lanka claim that it is basically a commercial venture, its future utility as a military asset cannot be ruled out; but that may be true of most major infrastructure projects anywhere.

Over the years, there is no major infrastructure project in Sri Lanka in which the Chinese have not invested. It is estimated that China was Sri Lanka’s biggest source of foreign funding in 2009, providing USD 1.2 billion, or nearly triple the USD 424 million given by the number two overseas lender, the Asian Development Bank. Other projects in which China has invested include an oil-storage facility, a modern airport, a coal-fired power plant and an expressway. It is also rebuilding the main roads in the war-shattered north and east, and constructing a modern performance arts centre. It has also sold diesel railway engines and earth moving equipments. China has agreed to lend USD 200 million to Sri Lanka to build the second international airport near Hambantota.

India has always maintained a friendly and cordial relationship with Sri Lanka. China’s economic inroads into Sri Lanka may have spurred India’s engagement to be more proactive, thoughtful and imaginative. India and Sri Lanka have agreed to promote dialogue on security and defence issues and step up high level military exchanges and training. They have also agreed to promote the use of space technology for a variety of societal services. India has also agreed to assist in rebuilding the Palaly Airport and the Kankesanthurai Harbour. These proposals clearly reflect India’s eagerness to retrieve some of the ground lost to China. At the same time, it is disturbing that Indian companies showed little interest in the recent bidding for the new container terminal near Colombo. The Government of India may be well advised to “persuade and help” Indian public sector undertakings to bid more vigorously for major infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka. Without some kind of government support, it may be difficult for Indian entities to match the “best terms” offered by the Chinese government-owned entities.


The Indian Prime Minister has often said (and he has been approvingly quoted by his Chinese counterpart) that there is enough space for India and China to pursue their ambitions of economic development. Could one then justifiably assess that China has been more efficient than India in identifying her national interests in each South Asian country; and has been able to pursue those interests with sizeable investments and loans through state-owned entities that India has been unable or unwilling to do? Merely complaining about China trying to “strangle” or contain India would be of no help. India has necessarily to revisit her policies and procedures.

The Indian Prime Minister had also referred earlier to “asymmetric reciprocity” relating to India’s weaker neighbours. This should be enlarged to include efforts by India to share some of her new prosperity with the countries in South Asia, particularly in the areas of infrastructure, industrial development and alleviation of poverty – though a lot remains to be done in India itself in these areas.

South Asia is strategically important both to India and China; and both need a peaceful environment for their development. While they continue to court and help these countries, they can and should ensure that they cooperate whenever possible, compete where necessary and unavoidable, but do their best to avoid any conflict – engaging in awareness of and respect for each other’s national interests, mutual accommodation and meaningful discussions.

[R.Swaminathan is former Special Secretary, DG (Security), Government of India and current Chairman, International Institute of Security & Safety Management, New Delhi. He is also Vice President of the Chennai Centre for China Studies. Feedback and comments may please be sent to This paper was the basis of a presentation made at a colloquium organised on 23 November 2010 by the School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, Kerala.]

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