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  Opinion   Columnists  27 Jan 2024  Manish Tewari | China in our backyard poaching our neighbours

Manish Tewari | China in our backyard poaching our neighbours

Manish Tewari is a lawyer and a former Union minister. The views expressed are personal. Twitter handle @manishtewari
Published : Jan 27, 2024, 11:55 pm IST
Updated : Jan 27, 2024, 11:55 pm IST

India-China geopolitical dance: Navigating diplomatic challenges in the neighborhood

President Xi Jinping.  (Photo by NOEL CELIS / AFP)
 President Xi Jinping. (Photo by NOEL CELIS / AFP)

The fading relationship between India and the Maldives is merely symptomatic of a larger failure by South Block to maintain a simpatico with its neighbours. India is rapidly losing influence in what it considers to be its Monroe doctrine domain. The only beneficiary is China. China today is hyperactive in the South Asian region expanding its outreach beyond mercantile and development imperatives accumulating broader political and strategic influence in the region.

In 2023, China imported $2.23 trillion worth of raw materials and 563.99 million metric tonnes of crude oil roughly equivalent to 11.28 million barrels per day (BPD). About 60 per cent of Chinese trade by value is seaborne. A number that has seen a sharp upward trajectory since China opened up its economy in 1978. Most of this trade passes through the SLOCs (Sea Lanes of Commerce) transiting through the Suez Canal, Bab-Al Mandeb Strait, Strait of Hormuz, Malacca Strait and the South China Sea. Each of them represents either a significant maritime chokepoint or comprises hotly contested waters and, therefore, presents a substantial challenge to China’s regional and global disposition.

Given the robust American maritime presence in the Indo-Pacific coupled with an India that sits at the head of the Indian Ocean with the locational advantage of dominating some of these SLOCs the challenge for China gets further exacerbated. To counter these susceptibilities China developed the String of Pearls doctrine. China accordingly has established nodes of influence or ‘pearls’ in the broader Indo-Pacific Region that it has the ability to leverage.

China is also helped in its endeavours by India’s failure to find a modus vivendi with its neighbours that thereby created a vacuum that China unfortunately has succeeded in filling up with great alacrity. India’s hostile relationship with Pakistan has been leveraged by China as a counterweight going all the way back to the Sino-Pakistan agreement of 1963.

Through infrastructure projects and loans, Pakistan has, over the decades, been turned into a vassal state by China. Islamabad owes nearly one-third of its external debt to Beijing. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has been financed and is being constructed by China to provide an alternative to its maritime dilemmas. The Gwadar port is nothing more than a Chinese footprint in the North Arabian Sea. With Indo-Pakistan relations in deep freeze, China feels at liberty to outsource the ‘containment’ of India to Pakistan.

Sri Lanka continues to be mired in an economic crisis as a consequence of China’s aggressive debt diplomacy. As of October 2023, Sri Lanka has a total foreign debt of $46.9bn, 52 per cent of which is owed to China, its largest lender. As a result of its inability to pay its debts, Sri Lanka was compelled to virtually surrender its Hambantota port to the Chinese. China still wields considerable influence in the archipelago enough to coerce Sri Lanka to host Chinese surveillance ships despite New Delhi’s strident protests.

Ever since the military ceased power in Myanmar in 1962, China became an important external crutch for the Junta. On February 1, 2021, the Tatmataw once again carried out a coup d’etat against the civilian government and the subsequent international opprobrium has further driven the junta into the Chinese sphere of influence. Moreover, on January 12, 2024, China claimed that it has been able to mediate an arrangement with the three-brotherhood alliance the Arakan Army (AA), the Mandarin-speaking Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).

Additionally, China has revitalised interest in the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) which, if completed, would enable China to bypass the Malacca Strait, significantly undermining India's current advantage. The inability of the Union government to manage ongoing tensions in Manipur and the consequent decision to fence the 1,463 kilometre long Indo-Myanmar border coupled with the threat to scrap the free movement agreement implemented in 2018 will create additional stress points in an already convoluted relationship.

After the Taliban regained control in Afghanistan, China was amongst the only countries that continued operating its embassy to operate in Kabul. China has actively engaged with Kabul exploring opportunities in Afghanistan and bagging contracts, especially for the mining of natural resources. Moreover, China's growing influence has also been to counter the East Turkistan Islamic Movement’s (ETIM) presence in Afghanistan that challenges Beijing’s suzerainty on the Xinjiang province. Despite deteriorating relations between Pakistan and Taliban, China’s equation with the Taliban has largely remained unaffected.

In Nepal, China gradually acquired disproportionate influence over its polity going back to the days of the Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD) in 1990. India skewed its position further by the economic blockade of Nepal for entirely specious reasons. Nepal’s erstwhile Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli is considered to be “overtly” Chinese in his disposition. He unreservedly backed China on issues such as such as Taiwan, Tibet, and the BRI project.

The current Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda, however, is attempting to maintain an equilibrium. Yet he is facing strong resistance from the Beijing-controlled political class. This can be seen when Nepal, under Chinese pressure, was forced to back off from the US State Partnership Program.

The visit of Bhutan’s foreign minister to China in October 2023 marked a tectonic shift in Bhutan’s relations with India. Bhutan has historically been in India’s sphere of influence and has been dependent on New Delhi. However, the ongoing border negotiations between Bhutan and China have injected a new dynamic into its relationship qua India. While Bhutan may have adopted a three-step roadmap for delineation and demarcation of the border with China, it has not stopped China’s salami slicing land grabs, the latest being in the Bhutan's remote Jakarlung Valley, part of the Beyul Khenpajong region. India has been unable to intervene to prevent repeated violations of Bhutanese sovereignty.

Bangladesh, though, has remained largely neutral amidst the India-China stresses and strains. It is still noteworthy that China-Bangladesh's bilateral trade has increased significantly. Chinese exports to Bangladesh have multiplied 16-fold in the last two decades, making China Bangladesh's largest trading partner with a total export value of $24.1 billion in 2021. If this continues, then India will also lose its influence in Bangladesh. Moreover, drawing inspiration from Mohammad Muizzu’s “India-Out” campaign, elements aligned to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has launched its own “India Out” movement. If the BNP were to ever come to power, though, that does not seem to be the case in the foreseeable future as it could potentially shift Bangladesh into China's sphere of influence, as seen in the case of the Maldives.

India needs a reality check to course-correct its tattered neighborhood policy before things reach an inflection point.

Tags: manish tewari, belt and road initiative (bri), south asia, india china diplomatic relations