India and the West are concerned about China’s growing influence in South Asia – South Asians should be, too
Rubeena Mahato says even as they welcome China’s investment, smaller South Asian nations should be wary of its impact on their environment and politics, along with the responses of India and the West
A new geopolitics is shaping up in South Asia: China is fast replacing India and the West, commanding greater say among small South Asian states which have felt bogged down by Indian and Western machinations.
Despite India’s opposition and warnings about debt entrapment and environmental crises, most South Asian states have joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative. However, apart from concerns about what the initiative means for the West and India, there has been little discussion of how small South Asian states will be affected by the belt and road strategy and how they will seek to influence the terms of engagement.
To be sure, the project has faced setbacks: there have been delays and concerns about financial viability and political sovereignty, and critics have argued that the whole endeavour could be a massive waste. Still, the initiative is taking shape.
The inability of the West to imagine, let alone build, such a project has allowed China an enviable entry point to shape and influence global politics. Having lost hope of reducing poverty with the Western development model, developing countries have opted to try the Chinese approach of investing in large infrastructure projects.
It remains to be seen if the Chinese model will rescue countries from underdevelopment or push them deeper into economic troubles. But economic impacts aside, there are other less-discussed consequences of the belt and road strategy and increased engagement with China that South Asian countries should carefully consider.
The first is geopolitical, particularly new alliance formation in South Asia and its effect on the domestic politics of small states. Western attempts at rebalancing relations, including a European Union proposal about building an alternative to the belt and road scheme, can be seen in this light.
The tri-polar competition of India, China and the West in the region has often led to frequent regime changes, political instability and, consequently, erosion of democratic rules and values in small South Asian states. Thanks to the belt and road scheme, the geopolitical rivalry will accelerate further.
At times, geopolitical competition has enabled South Asian states to wield bargaining power, but has more frequently locked them in survival mode, unable to focus on the more demanding jobs of state-building and economic development.
Additionally, there have been cases where bigger powers have bypassed smaller countries to reach an understanding on issues of tri-lateral disputes. This happened most recently in Doklam, in Bhutan’s case, and previously in Kalapani, in Nepal’s case. In both instances, India and China forged an agreement without involving the countries concerned. The belt and road would bring another level of complexity to the tri-lateral interactions in the region.
The second impact will be in terms of how close engagement with China through projects such as the belt and road transforms political culture and public opinion in the small states. A consequence of democratic decline in the West is that, increasingly, people in transitional countries may see China’s political model as more attractive.
Third will be the ecological impact of the belt and road scheme and the implications for climate security. Most South Asian states already feel the effects of climate change, which they had very little role in causing. Participating countries must understand how an infrastructure race in one of the most ecologically fragile regions will affect regional and global climate systems.
The belt and road project will bring to the fore pertinent questions about environmental degradation, climate-change-induced conflict and displacement, and the potential for state failure. These challenges cannot be addressed at the state level but would need collective deliberations.
As of now, there is no mechanism or effective structure in place where such deliberations can take place. Forums like the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation are ineffective and small states embroiled in their own battles have been unable to think together on issues of shared importance.
Consequently, the conversation on the belt and road has focused on how the West should position itself to protect its interests in South Asia, given the waning power of the Indo-West alliance in the region and how small states will no longer provide a buffer space.
The West’s immediate interests with regards to the belt and road involve maintaining trade competitiveness and security leverage. One could argue that, as a major development partner, Western interests in South Asia also extend to support on environmental sustainability, social and economic development, governance reform and democracy building.
But, essentially, Western discourse on the initiative and proposed responses are helpful in understanding their entrenched interests in the region but it wouldn’t necessarily help countries in South Asia, even India, to prepare for the wide-ranging political economic and ecologic impact to be expected from a project of this scale. It is up to South Asian states to anticipate and prepare for the challenges ahead.
But whether South Asian states can form a joint front on problematic issues and reap benefits from the belt and road remains to be seen.
Rubeena Mahato is a Nepali writer. She writes on global politics and development policy