Over the years, we have seen China’s influence growing all over the world, but it is the South Asian Region where its sway has been felt the most. China has significantly expanded its political, security, and people-to-people engagement in this region. Although many credit the Belt and Road Initiative for the immense growth in China’s influence, which is valid, there are several other factors at play. It considers all the nations in the South Asian region as equals and puts great emphasis on common issues, thus making these countries closer to China by focusing on their similarities. China has invested heavily in infrastructure, roads and railways, and financial aid, and has also been successful in wooing political parties of the countries in the region.
But taking aid from China comes at its own cost.
“While Chinese commercial loans and currency-swap arrangements have contributed towards national efforts at reviving growth, they risk increasing already large bilateral trade deficits with China and unfavorable debt dynamics,” says Dr. Ganeshan Wignaraja, a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore.
GROWTH OF CHINA’S INFLUENCE AMID THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
The pandemic has come at a cost for China as many nations, including Australia and the USA, believe that the virus originated in China and could have been contained if China had been more proactive. But with the virus came an opportunity for China’s influence to increase in the South-Asian region by offering vaccines and funds for health infrastructure to neighboring nations like Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Bangladesh. China’s influence is so strong that these nations have increasingly turned to China to seek help in battling the virus. Till September 2021, half of Nepal’s population, i.e., 149 million people, have received the Chinese Covid-19 vaccine Sinopharm which has been the largest Covid relief provider in Sri Lanka. All this has helped China a lot in gaining a positive public perception in these nations.
“All of these countries are seeking various types of partnerships, & they will go to whoever is able to help, be it India, US, China, or Europe. What Covid-19 has done is it has added some points where China has been able to come through with vaccines and other things,” said Dr. Deep Pal, a visiting scholar in the Asia program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Recently, China held its third multilateral dialogue with the South Asian countries to increase cooperation in fighting the latest health pandemic, Covid-19, in order to get closer to its neighbors. This meeting was attended by five nations— Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. Pakistan and Nepal have attended all three meetings. China has tried initiating a lot of platforms to increase its engagement in the region. In July 2021, China extended its China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan and strengthened the economic corridor plan with Nepal called Trans-Himalayan Multi-dimensional Connectivity Network. China has become the largest overseas investor in the Maldives, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Here we will briefly touch upon some of the initiatives taken by the country.
- China-South Asia Emergency Supplies Reserve: China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, in an effort to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and enable economic recovery in the area, have agreed to build the Emergency Supplies Reserve.
- Poverty Alleviation and Cooperative Development Center: “The center’s aim is to integrate resources, pool strength, and exchange wisdom to help and support the South Asian countries’ economic development & livelihood improvement, jointly promoting the cause of poverty reduction,” said the Chinese foreign ministry in a statement.
CHINA’S RELATIONS WITH DIFFERENT COUNTRIES
China’s influence in these regions has mostly been related to commercial and financial aspects. It has invested a lot in high finance projects like the Padma Multipurpose Bridge Project in Bangladesh and Hambantota and Colombo port projects in Sri Lanka and has constantly helped these nations with funding, technological, and logistical support. It is the biggest trading partner in goods for Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and the second-largest for Nepal and Maldives. Chinese investors have been the largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI) pledged to Nepal for six consecutive years till 2020–2021, with more than half of the country’s total FDI in the 2018–2019 fiscal year.
But China is slowly spreading its influence to other areas as well. For example, education, tourism, politics, etc., thus trying to exert dominance in the area. China has been encouraging the Chinese to visit these nations as tourists. For example, the Chinese ambassador released a set of photographs of herself visiting Nepal’s tourist attractions leading to an 11% rise in Chinese tourists. In Nepal, multiple schools have made Chinese-language courses compulsory after the Chinese government offered to cover the salaries of the teachers involved. In Bangladesh, journalists have been awarded one-year, all-expenses-paid fellowships to Chinese institutions. There has also occurred a rise in the number of Confucius Institutes that have opened in Bangladesh.
China has also been trying to penetrate the politics of these nations with the International Department of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) building alliances with political parties in the region. In Bangladesh, China signed a memorandum of understanding with the ruling Awami League to improve cooperation and has also held many seminars and virtual conferences with the ruling parties of Nepal and Sri Lanka for the same purpose.
China’s Relations with Pakistan
In order to counter the dominance of India in the region, China seems to have formed close ties with Pakistan and considers it as an important factor in Chinese decision-making in South Asia. China considers Pakistan to be a key factor in its efforts to counter-terrorism. China, in several instances, has used its veto power in the UN Security Council to prevent the sanctioning of Masood Azhar, the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Pakistan-based militant group, until finally relenting last year. Pakistan holds a very important position when it comes to kick-starting its Belt and Road Initiative through its flagship project CPEC and showing the world that China has good intentions to connect the world, develop infrastructure, and establish an interdependent market, especially in the countries of Asia and Africa.
HOW DO CHINA’S EXPANSIONIST POLICIES AFFECT INDIA AND ITS RELATIONS IN THE REGION
India is slowly losing its grip on the South Asian region. Once supported by almost all the nations in the region, India aimed to see itself as the natural leader of South Asia and was almost optimistic about fulfilling its goal through SAARC. Still, in the recent past, we have observed India shifting its focus from the region while China is gradually becoming more interested in this region. In the past decade, China has replaced India as the major trading partner of several South Asian countries. China’s trade with Bangladesh is now about twice that of India.
However, it is of importance to note that, contrary to popular belief, not all nations in the region are completely dependent on China for economic assistance. No doubt China is trying to gather clout in the South Asian region, but India is still able to maintain its position as a leader in the region.
It is true that it is difficult for India to compete head to head with China in this region. Thus it can focus on cooperating with China for the development of this region. The Asian region is set to become the next superpower in the world, with the greatest emerging economies like China, India, South Korea, and Taiwan being major parts of it. If India plays its cards right and cooperates with China rather than opposing it, together, they can gain mutually from each other and develop at a rapid rate. Moreover, India should focus on increasing its influence in the region.
With China’s attempts to enter SAARC, it seems that China is successfully on its way to filling the power void created by India in the South-Asian region. Thus it will become so invincible that it will become nearly impossible for India to counter China. But this in no way should mean that India should willingly accept all the activities China has been engaging in to fulfill its expansionist dreams. India should strongly condemn the plans of extension of CPEC, BRI, and other initiatives and play a more proactive role to extend its cooperation and aid to its neighbors.
Written by: Aashna