China geopolitically stares ignonimously in 2022 at the sequential political crumbling of its South Asian dominoes politically cultivated and propped into power in Pakistan and more significantly in Sri Lanka where an unprecedented meltdown has taken place. Nepal may not be far behind. South Asian turbulence unravelling China’s strategic blueprint of ‘India-Encirclement’ would be significantly disconcerting for China when added to post-Ukraine Russian Invasion tangentially impacting China globally.
China is therefore challenged by stark conclusions which hardly offer optimistic indicators whether China can retrieve its dominoes in South Asia and re-establish itself on its earlier pedestal in South Asia. Prevailing geopolitical environment, exit of China-propped elitist leaders in Sri Lanka and Pakistan and more significantly the utter disillusionment of ‘Street Masses’ in Sri Lanka and Pakistan would make this a long haul for China.
China-induced political and economic meltdowns due to China’s ‘Debt Traps’ diplomacy in Sri Lanka and Pakistan and miseries inflicted because of their political elites arising from their their ‘China-Connection’ would not be lost on other nations of South Asia stretching from Nepal to Maldives as to the end-result of reducing their nations to vassal status of China.
China’s dominoes in South Asia seem to be in a free-fall economic and political meltdown lending provenance to the view that South Asian nations tempted to use the ‘China Card’ against India now themselves seem to be inflicted with terminal decline by wrong playing of their geopolitical cards
Perceptionaly, China’s ‘Kiss of Death’ has sealed their future unless they can wriggle out of China’s strategic embrace. But China can hardly be expected to let Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal loosen the Chinese gridlock embrace of these three nations.
China itself has to blame for the political and economic meltdown of Pakistan and Sri Lanka more specifically. China manipulated the political emergence of Imran Khan as Pakistan Prime Minister and the vice-like grip of the Rajapaksha Brothers in Sri Lanka. Grandiose economic development plans were heralded with China underwriting massive Chinese loans to Pakistan and Sri Lanka which were slurped up by China-Protégés in power without due regard and scrutiny of the financial capacity of their countries to service loan repayments at exorbitant rates.
The end result has been that massive economic investments in Sri Lanka and Pakistan have not resulted in economic upliftment of Sri Lankans or Pakistanis. What certainly has resulted is China getting strategic bases in Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Gwadur in Pakistan. Will China be able to retain these bases in view of economic meltdown and political upheaval in these two countries?
In case of Pakistan, while the C-PEC Projects predated emergence of Imran Khan as Prime Minister, but noticeably as Prime Minister , Imran Khan’s advocacy and dumping Pakistan foreign policy interests and determinants exclusively in China’s lap was inexcusably not in Pakistan’s national security interest. It resulted in reinforcing of Pakistan’s image as a colonial vassal of China. This has resulted in diplomatic isolation of Pakistan in Imran Khan’s tenure as Prime Minister.
Having risen to power in Pakistan as a result of China’s political manipulations, (Chinese Embassy in Islamabad was hyperactive on this count in run-up to 2018 Elections convergence of interests at that moment of time between China and Pakistan Army establishment, PM Imran Khan squandered his “selective” positioning in power.
By early 2022 buoyed by China having underwritten PM Imran Khan’s stay at the helm, Imran Khan felt tempted to challenge the writ of Pakistan Army Chief in withholding assent on appointment of ISI Chief. Then PM Imran Khan and China favoured retention of outgoing ISI Chief who had inveigled himself into their good books by furthering their respective interest in installation of Afghan Taliban government in Kabul last year.
Rest is history as covered widely in media. End result was that Pakistan Army Chief appointed his own choice of ISI Chief, PM Imran Khan was ousted in a Constitutional Coup and China was left empty-handed politically and strategically in Pakistan political dynamics. Within Pakistan there is growing opposition to China’s flagship project in Pakistan, namely the C=PEC.
Sri Lanka presents a dismal picture in term of China’s strategic and economic investments where China like C-PEC in Pakistan has sunk billions of dollars in return for gains of strategic naval bases.
The President and Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, both Rajapaksha Brothers stand ousted by Sri Lankan ‘Street-Power due to complete economic meltdown as a result of economic –strategic tradeoffs with China. Perceptionaly, while the wealth of Rajapaksha Brothers grew exponentially with China economic largesse, Sri Lankans stand impoverished where today they are even deprived of basic necessities of living are scarce.
Nepalese political leaders have compulsively played the ‘China Card’ against India for decades. Perceptionaly, going by media reports, the Chinese Ambassador in Kathmandu was acting like China’s Viceroy in Kathmandu manipulating political parties in China’s favour. The Nepalese leaders now seem to have realised that Nepal playing the ‘China Card’ with PM Modi’s BJP Government in New Delhi is losing its currency value to detriment of Nepal’s overall national interests.
The Sri Lankan political and economic meltdown and the economic meltdown and politically dysfunctional state in Pakistan are the direct result of Sri Lanka and Pakistan’s apex leadership’s trading-off with China their national security interests for questionable economic gains which have not benefited Sri Lanka or Pakistan but leading to speculation that China’s financial largesse, directly or indirectly, has enriched personal coffers of the political leaders.
Geopolitically, the crucial question that arises at this dismal stage is whether China can retrieve its political and economic standing in South Asia as a whole? This has to be viewed in two or three different contexts. Firstly, whether geopolitical environment in South Asia could easily facilitate China to reposition itself on the same pedestal in South Asia? Secondly, whether China in view of its down-sliding economy will have the political will to sink in more financial largess in the melt-down Nations to bail them out from their terminal economic decline? Thirdly, whether Sri Lankans, Pakistanis or Nepalese themselves would welcome again China’s intrusive presence in their nations, seeing the misery that China has caused?
Regrettably, no optimistic answers are forthcoming on the above questions favour of China. China presumably had not foreseen that ‘street Power’ in Sri Lanka would force shameful fleeing of Rajapaksha Brothers and that use of ‘Street Power’ by erstwhile Pakistani PM Iran Khan could not install him back in power.
Concluding, what needs to be highlighted is that in July 2022 China is now playing not only on a geopolitical “Sticky Wicket” in South Asia, which was the title of an earlier Eurasia Paper by me on China in South Asia, but also that in China-induced economic meltdowns in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, has laid bare the futility of China’s ‘Debt Trap Diplomacy’ as a tool to gain strategic bases in South Asia at the expense of Indo Pacific security.