A Wary Neighbourhood
Hidden in the narrative of progress, the expansion of a new imperial China has many South and South Asian countries worried
The standoff between India and China over the disputed Doklam plateau has now entered its second month. While there have been scrappier confrontations in the past, this time is unusual. For the first time, Indian and Chinese troops are staring down at each other on the soil of a third country. The Chinese, expectedly, are surprised and livid with India's uncharacteristic entry into the dispute, which as they have maintained is between them and Bhutan. China is using every means possible to scare India out of the plateau, but the Indian troops are holding firm.
The face-off at Doklam has major implications, not just for the two countries, but also for much of South and South-east Asia. It will set the rules of engagement in the future: if India blinks then China will be recognised as the unchallenged suzerain of the region. India’s influence in South Asia is already under stress due to China's muscular attitude and the liberal spread of its funds in these countries. What could worsen India's standing is if it is unable to protect a neighbour that is looking to save its territory from an expansionist power. In other words, the Doklam standoff is not just about settling territorial issues between neighbours, but also how countries of the region countenance the rise of China.
For years, the Indian government has been watching China eat into India’s area of influence. The Chinese have challenged accepted geographical descriptions like the Indian Ocean and Indian sub-continent, claiming that India should not claim sway over them. Besides, they have not only used their considerable foreign exchange reserves for spreading investments in cash strapped countries in the region but also vigorously work with politicians to bend policies to their advantage. Simultaneously they have built up their ideological and cultural influence by starting Confucian schools in these countries.
One example of the practical implication of this move is the Chinese policy in Pakistan, who they call their all weather friend. During the cold war years, US had used Islamabad to forge ties with China’s Chairman Mao. Those ties have not just endured, but deepened in recent years. China has protected Islamabad from being dubbed as a terror state and prevented India from getting into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).
In recent years, it has also invested $61 billion in 3200 km long China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which has the potential to transform Pakistan’s economy. CPEC is going through a contested territory through Pakistan occupied Kashmir – something that bares its ambition to use trains and investments to occupy the land. CPEC investments have created grave misgivings about their real purpose in the Pakistan media, which fears that the country would lose its sovereignty if the hidden clauses of CPEC play out.
Similar wariness is visible in Sri Lanka that has been compelled by a debt trap to give the ownership of the strategically significant Hambantota port jutting into the Indian Ocean to China. The decision by President Sirisena's government has upset the Buddhist clergy and the opposition parties that fear that China would slowly take over the entire island to give meaning to its much-vaunted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) initiative which will build connectivity between different continents. The Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled BRI earlier in May this year.
It is thought in Nepal that China's hand is increasingly visible. The Himalayan country is sandwiched between two great civilizational powers. Nepal shares language, religion and geographical proximity to India.
Its politicians have been inspired by the Indian freedom struggle and its liberal democracy. For years Nepalese politicians lived in India in exile to save themselves from the repressive policies of the monarchy. After the Nepalese shook off the yoke of the regent, there were many opportunities for the two countries to strengthen ties, but this period also coincided with contestation between the two countries for influence.
China that had limited its hand in Nepal to keep a close watch on Tibetans has now become more ambitious. Its exertions and assertive attitude have upset the balance, which was in full play during the tension between the Madhesis and the hill people during the writing of the country's Constitution. Chinese media was quick to point out the ethnic similarity between the pahadi people and the Chinese and the people of the plains were described as subversives from India. These allegations, though, surfaced only when the water had been muddied considerably due to the botched handling by the government of Nepal and to some extent by Delhi, which also had misgivings about a secular constitution.
The blockade that was imposed wasted all the good work that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had done after he was sworn in and even at the time of the earthquake. The blockade imposed by the Madhesis brought untold suffering to the Nepalese and it became a reason for the Chinese to show that the land locked country could rely on them.
Their attempt was clearly to sever the umbilical cord that tied the two countries. Prime Minister KP Oli contributed amply in creating this rapture. Though he was replaced by KP Prachanda and subsequently Deuba, the disrupted balance in the region and in Nepal’s politics will take a while to normalise.
More so when its war ravaged economy is being promised transformation through humongous funds. Nepal’s political instability and unpreparedness, many fear, could see the country lose its sovereignty and hurt its ties with India. Only time will tell how local cultures and politics resist a country that has little regard for democratic dissent.
Hardnews will be reporting in the next six issues, the impact of Chinese investment and the BRI in our wary neighbourhood. So keep a watch on our websites (www.hardnewsmedia.com), (hnfp.in) and our magazine for this special investigation