China’s Relationships in South Asia: Increasing in Sophistication

South Asia impacts China’s security in several ways. Besides the boundary dispute with India and Bhutan, Nepal and India are destinations for Tibetan refugees while Afghanistan and Pakistan are sources of extremist influences in Xinjiang. Nepal is also politically unstable which creates opportunities for Beijing – which has traditionally played second fiddle to New Delhi – to parlay its influence. Pakistan – where China’s influence has been historically strong – however, is at the other end of the spectrum. Domestic instability has reduced the scope of what China might achieve in and through Pakistan and military-to-military cooperation remains the strongest leg on which the relationship stands, even as economic opportunities for Chinese companies have grown. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, meanwhile, have swung between India and China but are increasingly now able to carefully balance their interests between the two.

The issue at hand is China’s increasing ability to develop ever more sophisticated approaches to its South Asian neighbours in response to the complex internal dynamics within and the differing states of each bilateral relationship. China’s knowledge of South Asian polities has traditionally been weak and limited to a few academic institutions and retired diplomats but today, its academics, diplomatic corps, and military officers can avail of greater opportunities to familiarize themselves to the region because of the sheer availability of financial resources and the high frequency of delegation visits.

While the coming US draw-down in Afghanistan increases Chinese dependence on Pakistan, Beijing is also seeking to put Islamabad on the mat as far as the terrorism problem in Xinjiang is concerned. Beijing has been increasingly open in recent years about pointing the finger at Pakistan for the problem. The visit of Pakistan’s Senate Chairman Syed Nayyar Hussain Bukhari in May 2014 was merely one among a long line of high-level Pakistani dignitaries visiting China. While it was Bukhari’s meeting with Xi Jinping that referred explicitly to the problem of terrorism, it was the meeting with Yu Zhengsheng, No. 4 in the PBSC that was perhaps the more significant. Yu is the head of CPC’s leading small groups on both Xinjiang and Tibet Affairs and it is no doubt his job to tell the Pakistanis in no uncertain terms that they have to do a better job of managing terrorism emanating out of their country. Note also Pakistan CNS Adm. Asif Sandila’s answer to a Global Times question about what the major challenges were that Pakistan faced at sea and how Pakistan and China could work together to address them. His answer – “The major challenge we are facing is terrorism. We don’t have very peaceful states close to our borders. We need to work with the international community to fight extremism” – seemed to be firmly focused on terrorism at land rather than any seaborne piracy. Not long after, in June 2014, visiting Pakistani Chief of Army Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif in a meeting with Meng Jianzhu, head of the Commission for Political and Legal Affairs of the CPC Central Committee and member of the Politburo  and Guo Shengkun, State Councilor and Minister of Public Security was told that China was ‘willing to enhance cooperation with Pakistan in combating terrorism to protect the security of Chinese personnel and institutions in Pakistan and maintain national and regional security and stability’. The statement appeared to indicate at least obliquely that China was not quite happy with the measures that the Pakistanis were taking and were offering to take a more direct role in Pakistan where Chinese interests were at stake.

In the case of the May 2014 Bangladesh visit of the CMC Vice-Chairman Gen. Xu Qiliang, it is interesting to note that none of the prominent Chinese media reports highlighted – like the Bangladeshi newspapers did – the fact that four military agreements had been signed. Rather, the emphasis for the Chinese was on the politico-economic – the China-Myanmar-Bangladesh road and the BCIM Economic Corridor – a sign of their belief in the maturity of political and economic conditions in Bangladesh and in their ability to develop a bilateral relationship not necessarily always subject to the vagaries of relations between India and Bangladesh.

Bangladesh as seen from Mawlynnong in Meghalaya

Bangladesh as seen from Mawlynnong in Meghalaya

China’s dealings with Nepal, on the other hand show considerably more circumspection, given that the latter’s political situation is still in flux. In addition to gentle upticks in the military-to-military relationship, China is also actively courting, leaders from across the political spectrum. Xinhua’s coverage of the Nepalese Foreign Minister and Prime Minister calling for balanced relations between India and China is also indicative of Beijing’s desire to encourage this tendency in a country where they have not usually held the upper hand.

Chinese actions hitherto were probably tailored in a manner that considered only a coalition government in India with its attendant pulls and pressures and, as a consequence, continuing weakness in attention to the foreign domain. The new Indian government however, is for all practical purposes, a single-party government with a comfortable majority and the ability to retake the executive prerogative on foreign policy which had in recent years slipped towards Parliament. It must now understand the multifaceted approaches that China has begun to employ in South Asia and elsewhere, and which are only likely to increase in scope and strength, and accordingly craft its own creative responses.

A promising beginning has been made in the Narendra Modi government’s invitations to the SAARC heads of state to attend his swearing-in ceremony as well as the symbolic but important gesture of the Indian Prime Minister making his first visit abroad to a neighbour, Bhutan. Similarly, the attempt to infuse greater respect and equality in the relationship with Nepal as displayed during Modi’s visit to Nepal is also welcome. But greater challenges beckon among which are China’s new Silk Roads policy that forms part of a renewed activism in China’s own neighbourhood diplomacy.

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