China’s rise and opportunities for South Asia

Can we ask Beijing to invest in regional communications and infrastructure projects?

China’s rise and opportunities for South Asia
The previous commentary in this column looked at the possibilities of South Asia working with Central Asia using the gas pipelines and electricity corridors. This commentary looks at the rise of China and some of its recent initiatives, and whether they could be pursued by the South Asian countries as an opportunity. In particular, the commentary looks at the One Belt One Road (OBOR), Maritime Silk Road (MSR), Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Corridor (BCIM) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects.

The economic rise of China and its ability to fund infrastructural projects in Asia and beyond (such as Africa and Latin America) has been a salient development in this region in the recent years. While Beijing’s economic progress has been explained in terms of its ability to become the largest trading partner with many Asian countries and rest of the world, some of its recent infrastructural initiatives underline China’s larger approach, which has the potential of becoming a game changer in Asia.

But while Beijing has proven its economic power, many countries in Asia are yet to accept the rise of its political influence. From Japan to India, to Mongoloia, many of China’s neighbours – including smaller countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines – are vary of its rise. The recent developments in South China Sea – the verdict of an international tribunal and Beijing’s response – raise a number of such concerns.

Is China using its economic might within Asia, and its larger clout with the European Union and even the US, to become an Asian hegemon? Washington seems to be looking at Chinese growth beyond Asia and perceives it as a threat to its global supremacy. Some of the recent American initiatives, such as the Indo-Pacific Asian Pivot and strategic partnerships with several Asian countries (including India) are part of this larger American response to Beijing’s global rise.  Within the US, both at the State and academic levels, China has certainly replaced Russia or Soviet Union as a predominant focus. Given the current US-China relations, this is likely to remain a predominant trend in the next few decades.
Is China using its economic might to become an Asian hegemon?

How should South Asia respond to the rise of China? Should China be seen as a threat or a competition, or as an opportunity? Or a combination of all three? Although various countries in South Asia have their own individual approaches towards China, can the region look at some of the larger Chinese projects collectively? In short, does the rise of China present an opportunity for the South Asian region as a whole?

Three projects in particular deserve more deliberation. The Maritime Silk Road (MSR) aims at China building a series of ports and presence in the Indian Ocean. Maldives and Sri Lanka are essential parts of the Chinese plans in this huge maritime canvass. Beijing has made substantial investments Sri Lanka and Maldives, constructing new ports and upgrading others, and investing in infrastructure projects along the coast. The Humbantota deep sea port in southern Sri Lanka and the expansion of Colombo port are part of this larger MSR strategy.

China sees the Indian Ocean as a means to larger economic ends at the global level. Its investment in the CPEC, especially the Gwadar port, is also part of this larger strategy.

The other corridor – older than the MSR, OBOR and CPEC – is a follow up of what was earlier referred to as the Kunming initiative – the BCIM corridor involving Bangladesh, India, China and Myanmar. The BCIM corridor looks beyond physical connectivity of the four countries, into trade routes and gas pipelines. Although discussed at the track-II level in the initial years and subsequently taken up by the states concerned, this initiative has seen slow progress.

The project faces several challenges. Domestic developments in Bangladesh and India’s northeast are a cause of concern, but they are not insurmountable. The democratization process in Myanmar and growing international investments have presented an additional opportunity for its ruling elite: they are no more dependent solely on China. Expanding the Japanese footprint in the Bay of Bengal is another important aspect. Tokyo’s Big-B initiative, and its fast-expanding investment projects in Bangladesh and Myanmar, do have a China concern. India’s relations with the US and China also collectively play a role in BCIM’s slow progress.

While India has always been cautious while dealing with the Kunming initiative, certain ministries, especially the South Block in New Delhi, did start looking at this seriously. Several meetings and dialogues were carried out. But today, there is a perception that India is going slow on the BCIM project. And one could easily ascribe this caution to the thriving India-US relations and the declining India-China ties. The BCIM is unlikely to get scrapped, however.

Enough has been written on the CPEC project. Viewed along with the MSR, BCIM and OBOR, one could see a larger picture and a larger reality. Outside India, Pakistan and the Maldives, countries like Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have their own international worldviews and domestic concerns. The Rajapakse government in Sri Lanka moved closer to Beijing, but the Matripala government in power now seems to be cautious. Nepal’s recent initiatives to opening up and building new rail projects are also a result of growing uneasiness between the two governments, if not the two nations.

Some countries in South Asia, such as Pakistan, are convinced that China is an opportunity. Besides the “friendship higher than the Himalayas” rhetoric, Pakistan’s recent domestic situation (economic concerns, the energy crisis, the investment scenario, and bilateral ties with the US) aligns well with Beijing’s push towards the Indian Ocean. Other countries, such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, are pursuing a cautious approach towards China, depending on their governments’ ties with Beijing and New Delhi.

While India’s trade relationship with China has leapfrogged in the last decade and is likely to expand even further, the corresponding political relationship has been topsy-turvy. It has not stabilized despite high-level visits involving the top leadership from both sides. A section within India (belonging to the strategic community) seriously believes in the outdated “string of pearls” strategy by China and views Beijing as a threat, advocating a confrontational strategy. Another section – especially the academic Pandas who have been smitten by China’s “development”, have become unofficial Chinese ambassadors in India – elevates China to a messianic proportion. A small section, however believes in “congagement” – pursuing conflict and engagement simultaneously.


The expanding Chinese global footprint is a harsh reality for New Delhi. India will have to compete with China in some ways, for example in Southeast Asia and Africa. In Southeast Asia, China has taken huge strides already (thanks also to an ineffective Look-East policy of India), a competition is likely in Africa. Narendra Modi’s recent safari to Africa is a part of expanding India’s influence in the continent.

But in spite of their individual ties with Beijing, can South Asian countries collectively see China’s rise as an opportunity? Can the various corridors and projects be synchronised to suit our interests and requirements? Can South Asia collectively invite China to take part in some local infrastructural projects, such as a road network, coastal infrastructure and gas pipelines?

None of the South Asian countries have the economic capability to undertake large regional projects. For example, linking the Himalayas with the ports of Cox’s Bazaar, Kolkata, Mumbai and even Karachi, needs massive investment. These are not ahistorical projects. Such a network was a part of the ancient, much-romanticized Silk Road in the southern sectors. The divided families of Kargil district, the myth of a Mongolian ghost in a monastery in Ladakh, and its numerous cemeteries would highlight the interaction between the two ancient regions and civilizations.

Nor does the South Asian region have the infrastructural expertise to build huge ports and expansive rail projects. The Chinese infrastructure machinery has been on the roll, and is now looking for new areas/regions because there is a domestic lull.

All South Asia needs is some innovative ideas and projects. Bilateral and regional differences are likely to crop up when such projects are proposed. For example, it will not be easy to bypass India-Pakistan political differences, and it will not be easy to convince New Delhi about the real reasons behind a section within the strategic community in South Asia wanting to bring China in. And Beijing is unlikely to act like a philanthropist. It would expect its own share in the pie – politically and economically.

Despite that, China does present an opportunity for South Asia. It can invest in and constructing road and rail projects, coastal infrastructure and gas pipelines. Can we, as a region, conceive a Marshall plan?

The writer is a professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, at the Indian Institute of Science Campus in Bangalore