By: Tien-sze Fang
It is fair to argue that South Asia had not been a priority for China’s foreign policy, although China has been an observer at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) since 2005 and a strategic ally of Pakistan. However, China’s interest in South Asia has increased considerably. Its fresh bid for full membership to Saarc reflects South Asia’s growing importance for Beijing’s foreign policy agenda.
Chinese President Xi Jinping paid state visits to Sri Lanka and the Maldives in September. Xi is the first Chinese head of state to visit the Maldives since the establishment of their diplomatic relationship in 1972. Maldives President Yameen Abdul Gayoom was quoted by Chinese media as saying: Other South Asian states were wondering how the Maldives could invite a Chinese president to visit the tiny country. Similarly, Xi’s state visit to Sri Lanka was the first by a Chinese president after 28 years. It has now clearly emerged that China is more interested in South Asia than ever.
China’s growing interest in South Asia has been driven by three main strategic considerations. First, with its rising power, China is expanding its influence beyond its immediate neighbourhood, including South Asia and the Indian Ocean. Despite India’s displeasure, a Chinese nuclear-powered submarine docked at the Colombo port. For the first time, Beijing did not keep the stopover confidential. Instead, it termed the episode as “nothing unusual”. That means China is trying to make its military presence in South Asia a “usual” affair. But, like many pundits argue, China has not been deemed a South Asian state. Therefore, its presence in this region has always raised eyebrows. The Saarc membership will serve as a solution since it will grant China a “South Asian” identity, with which Beijing can play an insider role in the region.
The second reason for Beijing to be more involved in South Asian affairs is related to China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, the abbreviation for the “Silk Road Economic Belt” and the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road”. The “Silk Road Economic Belt” was first mentioned during Xi’s visit to Kazakhstan in September 2013, while the “Maritime Silk Road” was proposed when he visited Indonesia in October 2013. Since then, Beijing has tried to use the initiatives to establish a more integrated relationship with its neighbours by building transportation facilities.
The main purpose of Xi’s visit to South Asia in September, including India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, was to promote the grand strategy, also dubbed as “China’s Marshall Plan”. So far, China has won public backing from some Saarc members, such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. But China also needs a multilateral mechanism for accelerating efforts to construct the
“One Belt One Road” in South Asia. In addition to the recently launched Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Saarc appeared to be an ideal platform for Beijing to rally support and concretise its ambitious diplomatic blueprint.
Third, China’s motivation to reach out to Saarc comes from its concerns about India’s eastward policy. The Narendra Modi government has renamed the “Look East” policy as “Act East”, in an attempt to build a deeper engagement with East Asia and Southeast Asia. It is not immediately clear precisely how India will act in the East. But India’s willingness to play an active role in the South China Sea, where China has overlapping claims with several countries, has alarmed Beijing. Despite China’s strong objections, India and Vietnam have cooperated in oil and gas exploration in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. China’s foreign ministry has commented, “If such cooperation harms China’s sovereignty and interests, we will resolutely oppose it.” It is also significant that the India-US joint statement, issued during Modi’s state visit to Washington, specifically mentioned the situation in the South China Sea, a move that clearly ruffled a few feathers in Beijing.
Moreover, China has expressed its discomfort about the increasingly strategic relationship between India and Japan. Disregarding Chinese concerns, India invited Japan to participate in the annual Exercise Malabar, along with the US, in the Western Pacific in July. It was followed by Modi’s veiled criticism of China’s expansionism in Tokyo. Although he did not name any country, the comment was seen as targeting China. Beijing has not been blind to these developments. It is reasonable, therefore, for Beijing to develop a southward policy as a countermeasure to put pressure on New Delhi and counter India’s eastward expansion.
With the support of some South Asian states, it’s likely only a matter of time before China secures full Saarc membership. India is left with few options but to seriously examine the implications of China’s entry. Being the dominant power in South Asia, India should probably manage China’s presence with a mindset of open regionalism. Despite blocking China’s full entry to Saarc, Delhi should mull over the possibilities of making China’s activities in South Asia complementary to India’s own neighbourhood policy. This is a more pressing challenge for India.
Fang, a former Taiwanese diplomat in India and currently an assistant professor at National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan, is the author of ‘Asymmetrical Threat Perceptions in
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