Balancing the end gameThe tripod strategy has paid off handsomely for China in Central and Southeast Asia
While adopting the Trishula (tripod) formula to enter South Asia in a sustained manner, China has largely upset India’s predominant position, both as a traditionally core neighbouring country and an influential economic-democratic-military power. The Chinese tripod strategy is based on making a very local entry, engaging nationally in core economic sectors and partnering regionally with South Asian countries. Khunjerab Pass on Karakoram Highway in Pakistan, Rasuwagadhi-Kerung in Nepal, Wakhan Corridor in northeast Afghanistan and Nathula Pass in India are signs of local integration that mainly addresses borderland geography and communities.
More than 21 percent of Bangladesh’s total world imports, 17 percent of India’s imports, 29 percent of Pakistan’s imports and 22 percent of Sri Lanka’s imports are from China. This significant import concentration is a critical manifestation of national level engagements. Thirty years back, they were negligible. And China’s consistent forays into regionalism initiatives like the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation (BCIM) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) are the third tripod bar laced with umpteen and quiet soft power tools.
Despite initial apprehension and resistance by the partnering countries, this tripod strategy has paid off handsomely for China in both Central and Southeast Asia. Unlike in the past, both countries are making big time investments and transforming projects in the neighbourhood. They trigger growth poles, generate reservoirs of employment and bring international brand names to the recipients. However, they are not bereft of harsh conditionalities, wider socio-environmental ramifications and penetrative governance manipulations by the investor-donor countries. The present phase is yet to show their real tentacles in the recipient countries.
Apart from the gigantic $56 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, relatively smaller countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan are hugely attracted by the lure to develop infrastructure with Chinese finance and get better connections with cross regional markets. These countries have also found the Chinese presence as a means to inject political stability through visibly impacting economic projects and using them to counter-balance India’s pre-dominance. India has reacted in four different yet significant ways.
Firstly, it emphatically announced a ‘neighborhood first’ policy and started comprehensively reengaging the neighbors with a much more liberal attitude and instruments. Secondly, it started making very proactive and transforming infrastructure project interventions like waterways and railways in Nepal and electricity grid connections with Bangladesh. Thirdly, it jealously reinvigorated counter-balancing regionalism-based institutions like the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) Initiative and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). And fourthly, it started engaging China on a different level keeping intact its alignment with the US, Japan and Russia. Further, literally dysfunctional forums like the SAARC and BCIM have delayed full-scale Chinese entry at the regional level. This is unlike the steady and durable Chinese penetration into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) Programme in other regions of Asia.
Regime specific diplomacy
An interestingly deductible trend has been that both China and India have keenly and demonstrably identified themselves with a particular regime in South Asia. At the same time, they are incurring a huge inherent risk of undoing the agreements and projects in case of a change in such regimes. For instance, India’s overstretching support to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh and China’s overwhelming identification with President Abdulla Yameen in the Maldives have triggered a huge ‘beneficial bilateralism’ to both these countries. Both India and China derived maximum mileage from these regime-centric diplomatic intimacy. In this game of a new variety of open alignment, the engaged partners have thwarted and ignored even their own sensitive domestic concerns. For instance, the commotion and confusion created by the ongoing National Register of Citizens (NRC) process to identify foreign nationals in Assam in India, in a normal situation, would have generated a tremendous upsurge in Bangladesh’s domestic politics and could even have dislocated its relationship with India. However, this external shock was quietly absorbed by the India-intimate Bangladeshi ruling regime despite the lurking issue of millions of Bangladeshis getting deported to their home country.
Similarly, China protractedly averted considering the perpetration of serious human rights violations and also clamping down on all the institutions of governance by President Yameen. This ‘engaging a specific regime at any cost’ could, in fact, be serious hurdles to furthering projects and programmes in case of any change in the existing regime. India did face such a situation whenever a Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) government led by Begum Zia came to power in Bangladesh. China in recent years has faced this awkward problem of sudden withdrawal and vehement resistance when President Rajapasksha and Prime Minister Najib Razak were ousted from power in Sri Lanka and Malaysia respectively.
On the other hand, these smaller countries have now started finding themselves drenched in a ‘balancing dilemma’. They are diplomatically striving to provide a visible impression of non-alignment. The cost of alignment even at the perception level could generate a new sense of rivalry and competition. India’s traditional acquaintance with the ruling elite in these countries and their domestic institutional orientation make it immediately sense and realise any significant deviation in their foreign policy. For instance, Nepal’s tilting towards China could be detected so easily without even any major formal agreements and projects. Later, when Nepal signed memorandums of association related to access to ports, partnership in BRI initiatives and other trade and investment ventures, India had no other option than to revive and resort to the theme of historico-cultural intercourses.
It is noteworthy that, despite highly competitive aid politics and participation by both India and China during the crucial decades of 1950-90, India could consistently manage to convince Nepal to keep China a furlong away from many sensitive sectors like agriculture and also from geographies near the India-Nepal borderlands. However, in the last decade or so, China could be seen everywhere in Nepal and in scores of areas that hitherto were considered sensitive to India. Nepal’s Zone of Peace proposal of 1975, ratified by more than a hundred countries despite India’s vehement opposition, was also an attempt by this landlocked country to wriggle out of the balancing dilemma.
The versatile presence of China is a widely known truth in this region. Like Nepal, most South Asian countries are now trying to find ways and means to balance the presence and participation of both India and China. Bipolar dominance is given a less of a choice. Even a peripheral island country like the Maldives is desperately searching for platforms and instruments where it could bring a semblance of balancing the presence of these two countries without harming its national interest and without hurting its people’s sentiments.
How to make India and China peacefully coexist on their native soil, and how to undertake a maximalist posture in terms of gains and national interest achievements are the critical questions these countries are trying to resolve. They are reorienting their institutions, re-skilling the diplomats, and more seriously, re-conditioning civil society and the media. Both China and India have also realised that the balancing game has to be evolved and institutionalised by the affected country. If the methods and means of balancing are not designed scientifically with wider acceptance, such competitive rivalry could heavily impinge upon the domestic political economy.
This could lead to micro management by bipolar powers in domestic affairs and dislocate the very ethos and institutions of independent decision-making. Sheikh Hasina, overwhelmed by President Xi Jinping’s liberal investment announcement in 2017, said that Bangladesh would maintain ‘good relations with everyone. The purchasing power of our people will increase, and who will be the bigger beneficiary of that in our region? India. India is best poised to benefit from the Bangladeshi market’. She was actually trying to design a new code of balancing framework between a relatively new player, China, and its own pre-partition physical part, that is India. The new president of the Maldives will have to do so too.
Lama, a senior professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, was a high end expert at Sichuan University, China.