​China’s ambitions abroad: The case of South Asia​

Rehana Hashmi | February 27, 2018

China’s policy towards South Asia is a key feature of China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), which is evident in the BRI’s flagship China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor (CPEC). On the one hand, China’s policy towards South Asia is regarded as an infrastructure-led investment policy. The plan is to satisfy the energy deficit that prevails in Pakistan whilst improving their infrastructure and creating Special Economic Zones (SEZs) for facilitating free-trade. On the other hand, this project will connect China to Central Asia and the Middle East via the Gwadar Port. At present, oil is imported over 15,000km before it reaches China. With CPEC, this would be reduced to around 10,000 km. This will benefit China by providing access to Central Asian and Middle Eastern markets.

China’s policy towards South Asia has not only economic implications but also geo-political consequences. Many states, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, intrigued by CPEC, approached Pakistan to claim a stake in the project. As India is trying to isolate Pakistan diplomatically, the willingness of other states to join hands with Pakistan explains the significance of this venture. However, since it is a matter of politics, gains for China definitely outweigh the gains for other participatory states. This policy gives China a chance to acquire an indispensable presence in the South Asian region.

China’s presence in South Asia poses a significant economic challenge to India, and to the U.S.’s strategic interests in the region. In January 2018, President Donald Trump accused Pakistan of providing a safe haven for terrorist groups, provoking an extremely stern rebuttal from Pakistan. Some analysts have even regarded this as evidence of Pakistan’s break from the U.S. This shows how U.S.’ strategic gains have been disturbed by the influence of China. Whereas the South Asia region historically had a triangular relationship between the U.S., India and Pakistan, in which the U.S. was often the balancing actor, the U.S.’s recent tilt towards India has forced Pakistan to explore new options and to create new alliances for the protection of its national interests. U.S.-India engagements, be it nuclear deals or diplomatic support, have increased Pakistan’s vulnerability. Therefore, Pakistan’s tilt towards China is a counter strategic move.

Despite all the benefits that closer ties with China pose, global politics is based on a system of realism where national interests decide who are their friends and who are their foes. China’s growing economic engagements with the South Asian region can also be considered as a neo-imperialist move. One can justify the argument through various facts.

First, it is in China’s national interest to explore new regions to help fuel its energy hungry industry. Being the most populated country, the largest economy of the region and second largest in the world, it has to expand to exercise its potential. Second, through China’s economic ambitions, China also wants to exert its cultural influence, which includes the teaching of the Chinese language and Confucius Institutes. Though the apparent purpose of this cultural exchange is to bring cultures closer together with the aim of fostering closer relations with different states, within the realist paradigm, one must place this initiative within the historical processes of dominance and subservience. The weak are always subservient and under the heavy burden of Chinese loans, states will obviously have to pay a cost. Third, China’s  huge cultural influx will create problems in a society that is identity conscious. Fourth, China’s political system is based on the monopoly of a single political party where difference of opinion and democratic values have no place. The Chinese authoritarian system will definitely influence the overall political environment of a recipient state.

So, in a nutshell, China’s ambitions abroad are a zero-sum game for China as well as for participatory states. However, China must be cautious of the socio-political consequences. Economic interests should be secured through the security of democratic values and social order and national interests must not be ignored. On the other hand, by changing the power play dynamic in the South Asian region, China is posing a strategic challenge to the U.S. in the region.

Editor’s note: the article was originally published at IAPS Dialogue, February 15, 2018

Image: Pakistani security forces at Gwadar Port in Baluchistan, Pakistan, where China is currently establishing large naval facilities on the Arabian Sea. (Photo: Bloomberg file)

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