China’s growing South Asian role

 

By Syed Qamar Rizvi.

 

Given the imperatives of the rising of extremist forces that exercise ideological influence across the region and potentially in Xinjiang itself; or given the proxy battles in Afghanistan between India and Pakistan escalating tensions in South Asia, and given the exigencies of emerging economic order, China’s role in South Asia seems much emerging day by day.

China’s current strategic interests in Afghanistan are coped with a series of negative outcomes that it wishes to avoid: that the country seems to have become a safe haven for Chinese Uighur militant groups again, as it was in the late 1990s; China also has an ardent interest in ensuring that there is no long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, which it sees as an encirclement threat.

China’s close relationship– with Pakistan, which is central to the security dimensions regarding its policy toward both India and Afghanistan– has been mediated through its military, intelligence services, and senior political leaders. The PLA’s influence stems from its comprehensive network of relationships with the Pakistani military, spanning each branch of the armed services, PLA-linked companies involved in joint production of supplies and equipment, continued cooperation on nuclear and missile technology, and military intelligence (2-PLA). The intelligence services’ operation has been focused on– the terrorist threat in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia since the 1990s, as well as involving the role of non-state actors such as the Taliban and has been mainly focused on counterterrorism concerns.

Despite the fact that exposure to Pakistan and Afghanistan among Chinese business community has been significantly less than to India, Pakistan-china friendship seems much moored with good faith via strong bondage of people’s diplomacy.

As for the Indians, India is often perceived as a regional power, but a closer look reveals that New Delhi is in a disadvantageous position vis-à-vis China in South Asia. The first reason is that Indian governments never utilized their political, economic, and military capacities to pursue their regional power ambitions with their neighbours in the long run. South Asian countries could always play and rely on their China card in order to evade India’s influence. Second, although India’s new South Asia policy with the focus on trade and connectivity has improved regional cooperation since 1991, but China still remains an economically more attractive and politically more reliable partner for India’s neighbours.

In the present scenario, the geo-economic dictates reflect maximum radiation of CPEC economic flows in the South Asia region. The absence of this link restricts India-China trade to $71 billion and India-Pakistan trade to $2 billion. The absence of the link with India seriously constrains the trade volumes of other Saarc members. Their dividend would remain limited unless India fully partakes of CPEC. Goods from the landlocked Bhutan and Nepal cannot access the Pakistani markets through the shorter land route passing through India. It is pragmatically suggested that Indian strategists must exercise a forward looking approach towards the CEPEC phenomenon which could provide a multilateral boon to the regional economy.

 

Likely, Bangladesh cannot access the shorter land route through India to Pakistan and onward to China or West Asia, North Africa and Gulf states. The island nations of Maldives and Sri Lanka can of course reach China through Gwadar. Bhutan and Nepal can directly link with China, while Bangladesh lies on the Southwestern route of the Silk Road linking it with Kinmin in Yunnan province of China. The one deriving factor behind India’s current move of suspending its participation in the SARRC is that New Delhi is does not want China’s leverage in the SAARC. This Indian parochial approach towards China and CPEC is detrimental to the future of SAARC economy.

 

Veritably, China’s major interests in South Asia include promoting stability in both Afghanistan and Pakistan in order to curb the influence of Islamist extremists, and to facilitate trade and energy corridors throughout the region that China can access. It is in this back drop that China is also inviting Iran to join the CPEC. China has been enhancing its influence over other South Asian states, including Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives, to further help it secure energy and trade flows from the Middle East and Europe, and as part of a global effort to extend its diplomatic and economic influence. Furthermore, China seeks to contain Indian power by building close ties with Pakistan and bolstering Islamabad’s strategic and military strength. China likely assesses that, by tilting toward Pakistan, it can keep India tied down in South Asia and divert its military force and strategic capabilities away from China.

China has a willingness to play a more active economic and diplomatic role in efforts aimed at stabilizing Afghanistan. Washington positively welcomes Beijing’s increased involvement in Afghanistan and views efforts such as the establishment of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (made up of U.S., Afghan, Chinese, and Pakistani officials) as a rare opportunity for Washington and Beijing to work together toward a common security goal.

Despite the fact that India–China economic relations have expanded in recent years, but India remains wary of Chinese overtures to its neighbors and efforts to expand China’s maritime presence in the Indian Ocean Region ( that connects to forty two states of the Indian Ocean). On the other hand, the unresolved border disputes continue to undermine relations, and there have been border flare-ups that raised bilateral tensions on at least two occasions in the last three years.

More recently, China has agreed to join the U.S., Pakistan, and Afghanistan as part of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) to facilitate peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. The first meeting of the QCG was held on January 11, 2015 in Islamabad, where the participants valued the need for direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, while also committing to preserving Afghanistan’s unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. It is noteworthy that China is now willing to be part of the U.S.-supported QCG peace effort. In the past, China did avoid any association with U.S. policies in the region, apprehending that doing so would land them in the cross-hairs of Islamist extremists. 

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