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How should South Asia respond to the rise of China? Should China be seen as a threat, or as a competition or as an opportunity? Or as a combination of all three? Though individually countries in South Asia are pursuing independent approaches vis-a-vis Beijing, can the region collectively look at some of the larger projects of China?

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D. Suba Chandran
Professor
International Strategic and Security Studies Programme (ISSSP)
National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore

D. Suba Chandran
Professor
International Strategic and Security Studies Programme (ISSSP)
National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore

How should South Asia respond to the rise of China? Should China be seen as a threat, or as a competition or as an opportunity? Or as a combination of all three? Though individually countries in South Asia are pursuing independent approaches vis-a-vis Beijing, can the region collectively look at some of the larger projects of China?

This commentary looks at the rise of China and some of its recent initiatives; could they be pursued by the South Asian Countries as an opportunity? In particular, the commentary looks at the One Belt One Road (OBOR), Maritime Silk Road (MSR), Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Corridor (BCIM) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). 

The economic rise of China and its ability to fund infrastructural projects in Asia and beyond (in Africa and Latin America) has been one of the salient developments during the recent years. While the economic rise was explained in terms of its ability to become the largest trading partner with many of the Asian countries and rest of the World, some of the recent initiatives (as enumerated before) will underline a larger approach by Beijing having the potential of become a game changer in Asia. 

Obviously, China may have improved its economic might, but still many countries in Asia are yet to accept former’s political rise. From Japan to India and to Mongoloia, many of China’s neighbours, including smaller countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines are vary of China rise. Recent developments in South China Sea, verdict of the international tribunal and Beijing’s response – do pose a political question to those Asian neighbours of China’s larger intentions. 

Is China using its economic might within Asia, and its larger clout vis-a-vis the European Union and even the US to become an Asian hegemon? Washington seems to be looking at the Chinese growth beyond Asia and perceives as a threat to its global supremacy. Some of the recent American initiatives such as the Indo-Pacific, Asian Pivot and strategic partnerships with some of the Asian countries including India are a part of this larger American response to Beijing’s global rise.  Within the US, both at the State and academic levels, China has certainly replaced Russia/Soviet Union as a predominant focus. Given the current US-China relations, this is likely to remain as a predominant trend in the next few decades.

How should South Asia respond to the rise of China? Should China be seen as a threat, or as a competition or as an opportunity? Or as a combination of all three? Though individually countries in South Asia are pursuing independent approaches vis-a-vis Beijing, can the region collectively look at some of the larger projects of China? In short, does the rise of China present an opportunity for the South Asian region as a whole?

Beyond the MSR, BCIM and CPEC: South Asia and China
Three projects in particular deserve a larger deliberation. The Maritime Silk Road (MSR) aims at China building a series of ports and presence in the Indian Ocean. Both Maldives and Sri Lanka are an essential part of Beijing’s presence along with India in this huge maritime canvass. As a part of its MSR, Beijing has made substantial investments both in Sri Lanka and Maldives – in terms of constructing new ports and upgrading others, along with other infrastructural projects along the Coast. For example the Humbantota deep sea port in southern part of Sri Lanka and the expansion of Colombo port are a part of this larger MSR strategy. 

China sees the Indian Ocean as a means to a larger economic ends at the global level. Its investment in the CPEC, especially Gwadar port is a part of this larger strategy.

The other Corridor, which is older than the MSR, OBOR and CPEC is a follow up of what is earlier referred as the Kunming initiative – the BCIM corridor involving Bangladesh, India, China and Myanmar. The BCIM corridor looks beyond physical connectivity of the four countries; it looks into trade routes and gas pipelines. Though discussed at the track-II levels in the initial years and subsequently taken up by the concerned States, this initiative has been witnessing a slow progress. 

Following remain a challenge for the fast realization of the BCIM corridor. Though domestic developments within Bangladesh and India’s Northeast are a cause of concern, they are not insurmountable. The democratization process in Myanmar and growing international investments has presented an additional opportunity for its ruling elite; they are no more dependent solely on China. Expanding Japanese footprint in the Bay of Bengal is another important aspect; Tokyo’s Big-B initiative and its fast expanding investment projects in Bangladesh and Myanmar do have a China concern. Outside these, Indo-US relations and India-China relations – also collectively play a role in BCIM’s slow progress. 

While India at official level has always been cautious with the Kunming initiative, certain ministries, especially the South Block in New Delhi did start looking at this seriously. Few meetings and dialogues on the BCIM sprung up; but, today, there is a perception, that India is going slow on this. And one could easily ascribe this to the growing Indo-US relations and declining India-China relations. However, the BCIM is unlikely to get scrapped, though it seems to be muddling through now.

Enough has been written on the CPEC. But viewed along with the MSR, BCIM and OBOR, one could see a larger picture and the new reality. Outside India, Pakistan and the Maldives, countries like Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka do have an approach, though also being muddled through domestic changes within. While the government under Rajapakse moved closer towards Beijing, the present one led by Matripala seems to be cautious. Nepal’s recent initiatives towards opening up and build new rail projects is also result of growing uneasiness between the two governments, if not the two nations.

Is China an Opportunity to South Asia?
Few countries within South Asia are convinced – for example, Pakistan, that China is an opportunity. Outside the “higher than the Himalaya” rhetoric, Pakistan’s recent domestic situation (economic situation, energy crisis, investment scenario, bilateral relationship with the US) aligns well with Beijing’s push towards the Indian Ocean. Few countries like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are pursuing a cautious approach towards China, depending on the nexus between Beijing and their own political elite, and also the relationship with the Indian government. 

While India’s trade relationship with China has leapfrogged in the last decade and is likely to expand even further, its political relationship has been topsy-turvy. It has not stabilized despite high power visits involving the top leadership from both sides. A section within India (belonging to the strategic community) seriously believe in the outdated “string of pearls” strategy by China and views Beijing as a threat, and advocates a confrontational strategy. Another section, diametrically opposite to the above, especially the academic Pandas, who have been smitten by China’s “development” have become unofficial Chinese Ambassadors in India elevates China to a messianic proportion. A small section, however believes in “Congagement” – pursuing conflict and engagement simultaneously.

The harsh reality for New Delhi is expanding Chinese footprints at the global level. India will have to compete with China, for example in Southeast Asia and Africa. While in the former China has take huge strides already (thanks also to an ineffective Lookeast policy of India), in the latter it is likely to be a competition. Narendra Modi’s recent safari to Africa is a part of expanding India’s footprint there.

Outside the above bilateral approach towards China, can the South Asian region, collectively pursue Beijing as an opportunity? Can the different corridors and projects be synchronised to suit our interests and requirements? Can South Asia collectively invite China to take part, especially in some of the infrastructural projects – for example road network, coastal infrastructure and gas pipelines?

None of the South Asian countries have the economic might to undertake big regional projects at regional level. For example, linking the Himalayas with the ports of Cox Bazaar, Kolkotta, Mumbai and even Karachi – needs massive investment. The above are not ahistorical projects; it was a part of the ancient and the much romanticized Silk Road in the southern sectors. Divided families in Kargil district, myth of a Mongoloian ghost in a monastery in Ladakh and its numerous cemeteries would highlight the interaction between the two ancient regions and civilizations. 

Nor does the South Asian region have the infrastructural expertise to build huge ports and expansive rail projects. The Chinese infrastructure machinery has been on the roll, and now is looking for new areas/regions, as there is a domestic lull within. 

OBOR, MSR and other bilateral/multilateral projects with China can be appraoched by the South Asian region collectively. We need few innovative ideas and projects. Bilateral and regional differences are likely to crop up. For example, it will not be easy to bye-pass the Indo-Pak differences. Similarly, it will not be easy to convince India about the real reasons behind a section within the strategic community in South Asia wanting to bring China in (to counter India). There is also a growing sensitivity amongst the elite about China, thanks to Beijing’s alliance with an earlier corrupt regime. Finally, Beijing is unlikely to remain a philanthropist; it would expect its own pie – politically and economically.

Despite the above, China do present an opportunity for South Asia. Especially in investing and constructing road and rail projects, coastal infrastructure and gas pipelines. Can we as a region conceive a Marshall plan?

The above was originally published as a commentary in the Friday Times

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