By Bhaskar Roy*
Having failed to constrict India within South Asia with its “String of Pearls” (an American euphuism) Strategy, China has now embarked on a new initiative to trip India’s growing comprehensive national power (CNP) and influence beyond South Asia.
India’s neighbours swam with China periodically, depending on the government in those countries. For example, the Mahinda Rajapksa government in Sri Lanka jumped into China’s lap for their own political reasons. The Mathiripala Sirisena government has restored the balance.
The BNP led four party alliance government (2001-2006) in Bangladesh brought relations with India to the lowest ebb. The alliance had parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami which were beholden to Pakistan and actively complicit in the savage rape and attempted extermination of the pro-liberation Bengalees in 1971. They were natural allies of not only Pakistan but also China which supported Pakistan. The return of the Awami League to power changed this policy drastically. The Awami League government, due to practical necessity and real politics, crafted a friendly relationship with China, but not at the expense of their relationship with India. China, however, is trying to entice Dhaka, but this does not worry India because India-Bangladesh relationship has more than political market imperatives. There is a cultural and historical conjunction.
Nepal has been vacillating between India and China. Lodged between the two giant countries, they are trying to get the best out of the two. China recognises India’s influence in Nepal, but has been consistently trying to weaken the India-Nepal relationship.
Pakistan has emerged as China’s mainstay in the region and extends to the Gulf, the Central Asian region, and now they are trying to draw in Russia in this ambit. Weakening India-Russia relations is one of its aims. With its promised 46 billion investment in Pakistan for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Control of the Gwadar Port (a military project), primary arms and defence equipment supplier and recent acquisition of 40 percent of the Pakistan stock market by a Chinese conglomerate, Pakistan is fast emerging as a country under Chinese suzerainty. Evidence suggests Pakistan may soon become a platform for the projection of both soft and hard power for being along the route envisaged for the “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) project. China is unlikely to declare Pakistan as one of its “core” interests, but it is already acting as such.
Lately, China has been expressing concerns about achieving the full potential of the CPEC. In an article in the Communist Party affiliated newspaper Global Times (Dec. 28, 2016), Wang Dehua, Director of the Institute of Southern and Central Asian Studies, Shanghai Municipal Center for Internal Studies, wrote that the CEPC was facing challenges. He went on to describe the project as having “Significant economic, political and strategic implications for both China and Pakistan”.
Wang wrote this in the context of a spat between the Chinese Charged Affaires in Islamabad Zhao Lijian and a journalist of the Pakistani newspaper Dawn. The concerned journalist asked Zhao some uncomfortable questions including use of Chinese prisoners as labour. The senior Chinese diplomat lost his cool in a public place, which is very uncharacteristic of the Chinese.
Wang Dehua revealed that Chinese investment was raised to $51 billion from the initial $46 billion. The Chinese party media have extolled the virtue of the CPEC not only for China and Pakistan but other countries of the region including India, Iran, Afghanistan and Russia. The emphasis has been more on India, suggesting that India joining the project could help reduce tensions between India and Pakistan. Simultaneously, there is a suggestion to link Gwadar and Chabahar ports as sister ports and sister cities.
The CPEC is the flagship project of the larger OBOR strategic conception of extending China’s circulatory system far and wide. It has political and strategic penetration as significant benefits. Most important is the fact that it is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s prestige project. It cannot be allowed to fail at any cost. It is also part of China’s great power signature.
At the same time, Beijing is ramping up pressure on India in a shower, trying to destabilise India’s emerging foreign policy. Beijing’s stand will have serious negative implications especially on the biggest threat to the world at this moment, terrorism. In the last week of December, China vetoed India’s move to designate Masood Azhar, head of Pakistan-based terrorist organisation Jaish-e-Mohammad as a “terrorist” at the UN Committee 2167 on terrorism. This, when the organisation itself is designated as a terrorist organisation by the same committee.
This one move by China has hit at the very roots of the global movement against extremism and terrorism. Read plainly, China will use terrorism as a political weapon against perceived enemies, in this case India. It also encourages Pakistan to use terrorism with impunity against India, Afghanistan and even, perhaps Bangladesh.
India is determined to continue its efforts to bring other Pakistani-based and backed terrorists in front of the 2167 committee. China is the only member of their 15 member committee to oppose the move against Azhar. In a manner China stands isolated.
China took umbrage and accused India of interfering in China’s internal affairs after the Indian President met His Holiness the Dalai Lama at a function which was totally non-political. Their official media threatened India of retaliation of the kind they subjected the tiny country of Mongolia after Dalai Lama’s visit to Mongolia that was a purely religious one. Mongolia is a Buddhist Country, mostly of the Gelugpa sect of Buddhism which the Dalai Lama heads spiritually. This is a stupid threat. Mongolia a tiny land locked country, with a population of around two million is dependent on China for outside access. Such threats do not impress the Indian government and the Indian people. The Chinese threat appears to be an act of frustration.
Nevertheless, Tibet is a declared core interest of China, hence the Dalai Lama. The 80 year spiritual leader has withdrawn himself from politics, but his influence and reverence among Tibetans inside China and outside is palpable. The Chinese have not been able to come to a firm conclusion whether the living 14th Dalai Lama or deceased 14th Dalai Lama will be to their interest.
The Chinese leadership has tried to denigrate the Dalai Lama in all possible ways, calling him a ‘splittist’ (separatist), ‘devil’, ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing among other things, but these have not impressed anyone. Beijing suspects India is using Dalai Lama as a ‘card’ against China.
India has accepted Tibet Autonomous Region as a sovereign part of China (2003). The Tibetan refugees in India are not allowed political activities. Successive governments in New Delhi have bent over backwards to accommodate China’s concerns. But if China continues to attack India on this issue, India will be forced to fight back. Allow the Dalai Lama and the generally accepted Kargyupa head Ughen Thinley Dorjee freedom to move around India including Tawang and the rest of Arunachal Pradesh.
China is trying to push the OBOR to and through Nepal and Bangladesh. They hope that through persuasion from these two countries India may succumb and agree to join the OBOR in the interest of its good neighbourhood policy. If India does not relent China may seek alternative policies in India’s neighbourhood to constrict India. The Global Times has already hinted at this.
Beijing remains determined to keep India out of the Nuclear Supplies Group (NSG). It has now objected to India’s successful testing (Dec. 16, 2016) of the 5000 kms nuclear capable ballistic missile Agni V. In a sharply worded statement Chinese foreign ministry spokespersons threatened to take this issue to the UN Security Council resolution 1172 after the 1998 nuclear tests by India and Pakistan. The resolution passed at the heat of the moment and engineered by China and the US calling on the two countries to stop further nuclear tests, cap their nuclear weapon programmes, cease all fissile material production, and end development of ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons. The resolution, however is non-binding. China’s threat falls through the floor.
Since then, India has come a long way on the nuclear issue. It issued a moratorium on nuclear testing, announced no first use of nuclear weapons policy and signed the India-US nuclear deal. India, however, will have to counter Chinese pressures in several such areas in the future.
The Chinese spokesperson also said that “China maintains that preserving the strategic balance and stability in South Asia is conducive to peace and prosperity of regional countries ‘and beyond’. Basically, the statement implied that India may have disturbed the strategic balance in South Asia and beyond, without counting its own intercontinental nuclear capable ballistic missiles and other weapons. As China its military development is defensive and not aimed at any country, so is the official India position.
But things between India and China may get worse if the CPEC and OBOR falter seriously. This is closely linked to Xi Jinping’s politics and stature of “core” leader of the Chinese Communist Party. The 19th Congress to the party will be held in autumn this year and major leadership changes will take place. Xi cannot have any chinks in his armour.
*The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail [email protected]