Mutual respect key in South Asia push by China
The growing power of Beijing has Indian officials worried, but smaller countries such as Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh realise the need for balanced relations
China’s growing influence in South Asia worries Indian officials. They perceive the high-level diplomatic visits, infrastructure projects and investment and trade with neighbouring countries as chipping away at alliances with an eye on dividing and encircling. But New Delhi should not be so sensitive to such developments or see them in terms of rivalry.
It is natural that smaller nations want to thrive and Beijing offers the best, and in some cases, only chance. The three-month stand-off between Chinese and Indian soldiers near the border with Bhutan last year highlighted the region’s changing strategic dynamics.
Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh,which share history and tradition with India along with geography, were careful not to show support for either side during the crisis.
Their diplomatic silence was understandable; while jealously guarding their independence, they also benefit from having good trade ties with both regional giants.
China, in particular, provides a way to improve economic conditions through its trade strategy, the “Belt and Road Initiative”, which has meant a funding windfall for governments through infrastructure projects and investment.
India has refused to participate in the scheme, perceiving it as a threat to its place in South Asia. But its cash-strapped neighbours have embraced the idea, leading to the signing of lucrative deals with Chinese firms.
Rail and road links are being built from Tibet to Nepal on top of the US$8.2 billion pledged at an investment summit last year.
On the first day of the year, a Chinese state-owned firm took control of the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka after loans went unpaid and mainland companies are also involved in a string of billion-dollar projects in and around Colombo.
Investment and energy deals valued at US$24 billion were agreed when President Xi Jinping visited Bangladesh in October 2016. Chinese firms have also won most of the main infrastructure projects in the Maldives.
The official reason for such deals is commercial and foreign governments embrace the loans and construction expertise, but there is an obvious strategic element. Strong relations and infrastructure along the belt and road are necessary for the plan to succeed.
Sri Lanka is a case in point; development of ports will give an important Indian Ocean stopover point for Chinese commercial and naval shipping. New Delhi is understandably suspicious.
Of particular recent concern was the coming to power in Nepal of a pro-China communist coalition government.
But the smaller countries realise the need to keep relations between China and India balanced. To avoid misunderstandings, all involved need to embrace policies of mutual respect and shared interests while boosting communication.