CHINESE INFLUENCE IN THE SOUTH ASIAN REGION AND IMPLICATIONS FOR INDIAN SECURITY

Introduction

1. The rise of China and its ability to assert itself in the milieu of geopolitics, world economics and international finance, as also the global arms market, since the turn of the century is a well documented one. International as well as Indian strategists and geo-political commentators have not been idle during this period. Even prior to the commencement of the 21st Century (some refer to it as Asia’s Century), they have written about and posited innumerable hypotheses as to when and how China would occupy centre stage in regional, and subsequently global, trade and commerce, challenging the very hegemony that the US and allied western nations have enjoyed since the political and economic reshaping of the globe post 1989.

2. Closer home, the Indian security and military establishment has built up a crescendo of concerns, ranging from physical threats to India’s borders as China ramped up infrastructure in the Tibet Autonomous Region and Xinjiang Province opposite the Northern borders in the 1990s, and has collaborated openly with Pakistan as it presses ahead with its grand Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is a formal enunciation of what some commentators have earlier referred to as the ‘String of Pearls’, to curtail Indian interests in the region. This China has continued to do as it resizes and modernises its armed forces, an almost completed process today. It has also actively looked to secure basing rights at key ports and hubs across the Indian Ocean, under the garb of economic and commercial activities, with states that have little or no choice in the web of economic dependencies China has woven through soft loans, hard bargains and a long-term vision of where it wishes to be.

Chinese Assertiveness

3. Commencing from 2013 onward (which coincides with the ascendance of President Xi Jinping to the helm of the CCP) India has faced a series of confrontations across contentious locations along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh, the International Border (IB) in Sikkim and the McMahon Line in Arunachal Pradesh. China has upped the ante as Indian security interests identified and initiated a deliberate (almost unhurried) and more technically challenging infrastructure development, consisting of strategic roads, key bridges, railway lines, communications and habitat in what had been remote places thus far. Events erupted into fierce standoffs at Doklam, on the Indian-Bhutan-Chinese border tri-junction, in 2017, and in May –Aug 2020 during the ongoing military standoff in Eastern Ladakh. It is not the remit of this piece to go into the reasons and sequence of actions of such military tensions, but to try and discern a coherent thought process and possible economic and security prognostications for how things could pan out for China and the South Asian countries as the decade moves ahead. The Wuhan bred virus has already laid low all projections for economic growth since its appearance in Dec 2019 and we are nowhere near the end of the pandemic that originated in China. Some countries, including the Chinese themselves, have weathered the global economic downturn better than others, while naysayers have been highlighting the issue of this being ‘unrestricted warfare’ unleashed by China as it advances its rise to self destined greatness by the middle of this century (to coincide with a hundred years of Communist China in 2049), economically, militarily and geo-politically. Whether that will occur in linear fashion (as China would desire) or would others challenge it and create obstacles in the way, no one can be sure. What is for certain is that at present, leave aside the United States, there is no country that has the wherewithal in terms of DIME (an American coinage for Diplomatic, Informational, Military and Economic domains) to seriously challenge China as it moves ahead in resolute fashion to perceived and stated goals of being the centre of Asia and the world once more.

The Sinews of Power

4. The ability to become a regional hegemon, aspiring for global domination, has not developed overnight. China has to be credited with adopting long-term goals that seek outcomes decades into the future and not deviating from these. Commencing with becoming a manufacturing hub for nearly every consumer product in the early ’80s, by offering good infrastructure and cheap labour, to now seeking to be the leader in cutting edge technology such as 5G, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, electric mobility and the latest in military weaponry, China has done it all. It comes at a cost that China has decided it can bear, such as pollution, curbs on population, strict control of information to its populace, measures for surveillance of its people that elsewhere would infringe on basic human rights, and the brutal suppression of nationalism in ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet.

5. The one party system and strict adherence to Communist Party diktats, from the national executive to the lowest local bodies, has ensured that China is able to manage the contradictions of such rule with the benefits of economic growth that percolate down to its massive population. China has thus been able to lift over 700 million Chinese out of poverty in two decades through a sustained period of nearly double-digit economic growth, at the cost of political freedoms. This is the Faustian bargain it has made with the average Chinese. No denying that there is massive mismanagement, corruption and skewed power distribution within the system, and from time to time China’s top leaders, Mr. Xi especially, have cracked the whip on corruption within the party, using it as an opportunity to sideline and even jail political competitors.

6. The rise and arrival at centre stage of Chinese power politics of Mr. Xi Jinping is an interesting case study in itself. After Mao, it is President Xi who is now the most omnipresent and dominant leader in the Chinese firmament, having consolidated political, economic and military power in his hands and removed the limits to his tenure as the head of the CCP and PRC. Xi’s Chinese Dream is described as achieving the Two Centenaries: the material goal of China becoming a “moderately well-off society” by 2021, the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, and the modernisation goal of China becoming a fully developed nation by about 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. China has consolidated its hold on Hong Kong, it bristles at the idea of Taiwan being an independent nation, current realities not withstanding, and has time and again stated her willingness to go to war should Taiwan attempt to breakaway. Today the South China Sea is a self-declared Chinese Lake in which other littoral nations and the US try and assert their right of free passage and commercial trade. China has made extensive forays into the Indian Ocean (the Indo-Pacific becoming the counterweight to such moves of the Chinese through the alignment of interests of US, Japan, Australia and India, the Quad).

Implications for South Asia and India

7. In the ongoing game of Go or Chess (depending on how you look at it), China sees India as an irritant and major impediment to its natural rise as the benevolent hegemon over the entire Asian region. While trade between the two countries still hovers at the 100 billion USD mark (skewed heavily in China’s favour), in the field of geo-politics and security, there are marked tensions that have intensified in the last 15 months or so. China perceives the US, its main antagonist, as an agent provocateur by egging on India to check China’s rise. Our security establishment has its own valid concerns over the constant needling about border disputes and the open military collaboration with Pakistan that China has undertaken and further given impetus to in the economic sector. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the crowning example of this (though in the last one year it has run into its own contradictions and Baloch nationalism). The military implications of Chinese access to the Makran Coast near the Persian Gulf have their own challenges to India and her navy, not to mention the crude oil supply that passes through the Strait of Hormuz. Between Gwadar and Djibouti the PLA Navy has the ability to create trouble for our merchant shipping and commerce sea routes were there to be any major conflagration between the two countries. China’s efforts in Iran and Afghanistan are a serious attempt to expand its presence and economic sway further in West Asia and the implications for India are clear. Either develop your own inroads through diplomatic and economic tie-ups (Chabahar and the North South Transport Corridor are just two examples where we still lag) or watch the region fall to Chinese money power.

8. In the Bay of Bengal, Chinese survey ships’ forays into the Andaman Sea and the PLAN’s constant movements through the Malacca Strait and other choke points in the Indonesian archipelago are watched with interest and wariness by the concerned nations’ navies. The Indian Navy enjoys its pre-eminence in the IOR and at present the PLAN is still some time away from dominating the western reaches of the Indian Ocean. But her attempts to wean away Sri Lanka and Maldives from within India’s sphere of influence are ongoing and will have to be countered with a full press of whole of government initiatives, including military diplomacy. The current military junta takeover in Myanmar is a set back for Indian efforts to keep Myanmar and its fledgling democratic government out of complete Chinese dominance and influence. How it eventually pans out is still an open question.

Prognosis and Conclusion

9. Nothing is permanent in international relations except interests. At the moment it looks as if China has an upper hand as it seems well positioned economically and militarily to take advantage of the global turmoil caused by the pandemic and uneven economic recovery in many regions. India cannot afford to take its eye off the ball as it grapples with the second wave of the Covid 19 pandemic. China has dug in her heels after showing some accommodation in the standoff North and South of Pangong Tso between the two militaries. The LAC is just a few steps away from being made into an active border and that would be to our disadvantage vis-à-vis China. We must stay firm and alive to possibilities that Quad and other alignments can throw up and seize these if need be.

10. The leaders in China are also surely watching, possibly with wariness and concern, the ongoing politico-religious turmoil in Pakistan that may bring down Mr. Imran Khan’s government and challenge the Pak military itself. In any case the Chinese are too heavily invested in Pakistan to not try and keep firm control via the military in Pakistan and this has its own security implications for India. Thus the unrelenting Chinese rise and continued economic power play in the South Asian region is fraught with consequences for India. We have to be on the top of the DIME paradigm to play the game China seems so adroit at. Vaccine Maitri (diplomacy) was a good move to show our reach and prowess in tackling a common threat. Similar smart moves, coupled with a long-term plan for security of the region (SAGAR being a good example) along with enhancing military capability in all domains is the only way to mitigate and reduce the Chinese rise.