By Mahendra Ved*
Forget the “String of Pearls” story about how China is supposedly surrounding India on the high seas. China is not just on the sea, but also on land, in air and deeply involved in the economies of all of South Asia and beyond.
Two events in India’s neighbourhood taking place on a single day, November 14, show the extent to which the Chinese reach has extended and is expected to grow phenomenally. They need to be taken into account by India’s strategic planners.
One was Pakistan’s Gwadar port going operational and the other was the announcement in Dhaka that Bangladesh was getting its first-ever submarine from China.
Last Monday, the first major trade cargo departed from Gwadar, marking operationalisation of the port designed and built by China. That also marked the completion in just about two years of the project to feed the port under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) under the Chinese One Belt-One Road initiative.
Flagging off the cargo, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said the CPEC will “integrate development and commerce of various regions across Asia and Europe by increasing connectivity and Pakistan Vision 2025″. He further said that it seeks “to transform Pakistan into a regional hub of trade, commerce and manufacturing by harnessing its geo-strategic location into a geo-economic advantage”.
Taking in the big picture, he said the CPEC “will help integrate South Asia, China and Central Asia and offer opportunities for people in this region, and investors all over the world”.
The CPEC is central to the Sino-Pak vision and also to the Pakistani leadership as a panacea to all the ills affecting the country and of an acute feeling of being isolated after the United States under Barack Obama and much of Europe leaned towards India.
At the event, the Prime Minister was accompanied by the army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif. Both have attributed Pakistan’s current tensions with India to part of the latter’s efforts to ’frustrate’ CPEC.
The November 14 departure of trade cargo from Gwadar marks a decisive arrival for China in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf region. From there, two ships — Al Hussain Zanzibar and Cosco Wellington — set sail for ports in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates and the European Union.
The Chinese have moved fast in Pakistan when, by contrast, there is little push on the India-Iran-Afghanistan accord to develop the Chabahar port in Iran — less than 100 km from Gwadar — and build a railway line that would link Chabahar to landlocked Afghanistan and thence to Central Asia.
The project, with the blessings of the Obama administration, was also to get Japanese participation with the likely visit to Iran of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. But a Japanese official recently said there was no word from the promoters of Chabahar seeking any financial participation.
The announcement in Dhaka about it getting its first-ever submarine from China comes a few weeks ahead of the visit to India of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, likely in the latter half of December. A range of political and economic issues are expected to be on the agenda.
However, Bangladesh has for long placed its military eggs in the Chinese basket. Irrespective of the political colour of the regime in Dhaka, this has been a continuing and expanding process, making China the largest trade partner and the No.1 supplier of military hardware to Bangladesh.
Meanwhile, China’s deep involvement in Myanmar is a continuing story irrespective of whether the Generals rule the country or the present civil-military leadership. So is China’s commitment on several projects in Nepal, including a railway line that can be extended right up to the Nepali border with Bihar.
Nepal wants to maintain careful equidistance with India and China. Similarly, Sri Lanka, under heavy debt from China, wants to compensate the latter with several projects that the Maithripala Sirisena government has held back.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in July proposed to China’s Ambassador Yi Xianliang varying degrees of control over some of Sri Lanka’s biggest infrastructure projects, including the Mattala International Airport and portions of the Hambantota deep sea port, and wondered if Sri Lanka could receive some debt relief.
China refused the suggestions saying it was not possible under the Chinese law. But it has continued to promise “fullest cooperation” and that such deals should be conducted via investors on proper commercial terms. While China’s government will not swap debt for equity, it will help clear the road for Chinese companies to take over key projects in Sri Lanka. IZP, a Chinese informational technology company, has been put forward as a potential purchaser of Mattala International Airport, while COSCO is looking into expanding operations at the Hambantota deep sea port.
The fact of the matter is that India has neither the capacity, nor the political intent, to reach out to its neighbours with investments and projects. Indeed, many of the projects awarded to it have lagged behind for several reasons.
That being the case, India has much more to worry and work on beyond countering the “String of Pearls”. The Dragon has arrived in the Indian Ocean.
*Mahendra Ved is a senior journalist and President, Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA). Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to [email protected]