China’s presence in South Asia is now firmly established. Most of the South Asian countries including India are trying to take advantage of China’s desire to increase its trade and economic relations with the subcontinent. China’s readiness to invest and execute infrastructure projects speedily has generally been welcomed by South Asian countries to improve their poor infrastructure development.
The modernisation of the PLA during the last two decades in tandem with its economic growth has increased China’s confidence in its capability to protect the country’s economic and strategic interests worldwide.
China’s economic prosperity has enabled it to emerge as the global leader not only in manufacturing but also in consumption of raw material. This has triggered China’s appetite for energy and natural resources enormously, setting it on a global quest to meet its needs. And South Asia’s natural resources are likely to be increasingly exploited to meet China’s needs.
The global economic downturn four years ago has had its adverse impact on China’s export based economy slowing down its double digit growth rate. China has taken a number of corrective measures including improving internal consumption and opening up new markets of Asia, Africa and South America. China is also increasing its trade and investment in these new markets. The modernisation of the PLA during the last two decades in tandem with its economic growth has increased China’s confidence in its capability to protect the country’s economic and strategic interests worldwide.
China’s increasing strategic presence in South Asia has to be viewed in this global environment. China’s moves would undoubtedly contribute to optimize the rapid growth of the vast underserviced South Asian markets while increasing the import of Chinese products. However, these developments would progressively reduce India’s dominant influence in the sub continent and Indian Ocean Region (IOR) with the progressive increase in China’s strategic reach to the Indian Ocean littorals.
Strategic impact of leadership change
These activities have increased ever since President Xi Jinping and Premier Le Keqiang came to power in March 2013. They are functioning under the guidelines set by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) 18th National Congress held in November 2012. In accordance with these guidelines, Xi Jinping’s development targets for China are:
The PLA Navy is emerging out of the South and East China seas to meet its aspirations to become blue water naval force by the next decade.
- Strategic vision: “Realizing a prosperous and strong country, the rejuvenation of the nation and the well-being of the people” (combining personal ‘dreams’ with national dream). [i]
- Strategic goal – economy: Establish an ‘affluent, strong, civilized, harmonious, socialist modern country’ by 2050 around the year around the 100th anniversary of the CCP. In economic terms to achieve a GDP $ 4 trillion by 2020, and to provide per capita income of $ 3000.
- PLA: To make PLA a loyal force of the CCP command and provide reliable and professional support to protect China’s core interests during the strategic development
Xi has set about clean up the public image of the CCP and the PLA launched the ongoing large scale anti-corruption drive to weed out and prosecute corrupt party bosses and army officers.
Xi is also paying special attention to bring the PLA’s professional competence on par with the modern armies of the West. The modernisation of the PLA is focused on intense training for joint operation skills in a C3IS networked system.
Increasing attention is being given to improve PLA Navy’s fleet operation skills with the addition of an air craft carrier, and submarine and surface ships. Thus the PLAN is emerging out of the South and East China seas to meet its aspirations to become blue water naval force by the next decade.
China has tried to rework its strategic equation with the U.S., European Union, Japan, ASEAN region and India in keeping with the changing global environment.
PLA’s progress has enabled President Xi to assert China’s power in support of its territorial claims in South and East China seas and India. This has caused concern not only among China’s Asian neighbours, but also to the U.S. as it poses a direct threat challenge to the U.S.’ allies and poses a challenge to America’s domination of the Asia-Pacific region.
The emergence of China as a major power has increased its profile in the international arena including the UN. The U.S. has made extremely cautious in dealing with China. Countries like Japan, India, Korea, Vietnam and Russia, who have unpleasant historical experiences with China have also become equally cautious. China has tried to rework its strategic equation with the U.S., European Union, Japan, ASEAN region and India in keeping with the changing global environment. These developments also have strategic connotations for India.
China-South Asia connectivity
China’s South Asia connectivity projects underway also have a broader context to the ambitious China Western Development (CWD) plan started in 2000. It involves six provinces (including Yunnan) and five autonomous regions including Tibet and Xinjiang bordering India. As per 2002 estimate this backward region forms 71% of China’s area but contains only 28.8% of its population contributed only 19% of China’s economic output as of 2009.
The multi-faceted CWD plan involved development of transport, hydropower plants, and telecommunications infrastructure, improve ecological protection, promotion of education and retention of talent within the region for exploiting the abundant natural resources.
China’s influence will further increase in South Asia on the completion of the four road links and port infrastructure it is building. These are designed to improve China’s physical and maritime access to Pakistan, Nepal, India and Sri Lanka.
The 1956 km long Qinghai-Tibet rail link between Xining and Lhasa was completed and now trains regularly run from Beijing, Chengdu, Shanghai, and other important cities to Lhasa. They have increased PLA’s strategic mobility to the sparsely populated areas of Xinjiang and Tibet which have been facing unrest among Uyghur and Tibetan ethnic minorities. Similarly China’s logistics and military capability have been augmented with the road communication to the Sino-Indian borders improving the access to support China’s territorial claims in India.
These developments carried out under the 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015) is giving form to the country’s vision to economically integrate its backward western regions with the hope of neutralising separatist separatist influence.
China’s influence will further increase in South Asia on the completion of the four road links and port infrastructure it is building. These are designed to improve China’s physical and maritime access to Pakistan, Nepal, India and Sri Lanka. China also has plans to construct railway lines from Xinjiang and Tibet to provide rail connectivity from China to South Asia. China has also started promoting the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road to ensure the port infrastructure it has created in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are made commercially viable. Chinese projects to construct pipelines for transporting petroleum resources using some of these ports would also increase China’s strategic sustainability free of choke points in sea lanes of communication in Southeast Asia.
Pakistan Economic Corridor (PEC)
The PEC now under construction with China’s aid and assistance is an ambitious development programme that connects Gwadar port in Southwestern Pakistan with Kashgar in Xinjiang autonomous region by road, rail and pipelines for transporting petroleum resources. It consists of three segments –
China now enjoys direct access to Arabian Sea and Straits of Hormuz particularly after China Port Holdings gained control of Gwadar port operations in 2013.
- Karakoram Highway (KKH): The 1300 km long KKH runs through the Khunjerab Pass linking Xinjiang with Gilgit-Baltistan region in Pakistan. The highway now being upgraded will open up Pakistan’s backward region to trade and tourism from China and increase trading opportunities for Xinjiang. At the same time it also opens up China’s access to India’s western flank bordering Pakistan. It runs in the close vicinity of Siachen increasing India’s threat potential from both China and Pakistan either singly or collectively.
- Indus Highway: The four lane 1264 km long Indus Highway (N-55) runs along the Indus River and connects Karachi Port with Peshawar. The highway completed in 2008 provides China an alternate route to Afghanistan border using the PEC. It is a vital road as it runs through the rich heartland of Pakistan parallel to Indian border.
- Makran Coastal Highway (MCH): The 653 km long MCH known as N-10 forms part of Pakistan’s national highway network connecting Karachi with Gwadar Port. The road running along the Arabian Sea coastline is now being upgraded. The road from Gwadar has now been extended to provide alternate road connectivity to Iran. China now enjoys direct access to Arabian Sea and Straits of Hormuz particularly after China Port Holdings gained control of Gwadar port operations in 2013. This could be valuable in increasing PLAN warships capability and reach.
Among South Asian nations, India’s relations with Nepal are perhaps the most complex, subjected to periodic crests and troughs. Nepal is sandwiched between the two Asian giants India and China. This makes it vulnerable to political changes in either country. In a way Nepal may be called “India-locked” as former Nepalese Prime Minister Bhattarai once described as the country’s socio-economic interactions have been almost exclusively with India. For some years now, Nepal had been trying f to free itself from India’s overwhelming influence. Geographically Nepal remains the soft underbelly of India’s strategic security because of its domination of the fertile Gangetic plans of India linking Eastern India.
Nepal had requested China to extend the rail link to Kathmandu. When China fulfils this project, it would significantly improve China’s strategic access to India’s most populated regions in the North.
China does not have the historical socio-political baggage India carries in its relation with Nepal. China has used Nepal’s desire to follow an independent foreign policy to step up its influence after the fall of monarchy in Nepal. China has now mustered Nepal as a partner in its ambitious plans to extend its strategic land and railway links to South Asia.
The Friendship Highway links Lhasa to Zhangnu on China-Nepal border leading to the Sino-Nepal friendship bridge at Kodari in Nepal. This 800 km long road also forms part of the China National Highway 318 from Shanghai to Zhangnu. From Kodari the Araniko Highway provides road access to Nepal’s capital Kathmandu.
In 2007-08, China began constructing a 770-kilometre railway connecting Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, with the border town of Khasa in Nepal which was completed last year. Nepal had requested China to extend the rail link to Kathmandu. When China fulfils this project, it would significantly improve China’s strategic access to India’s most populated regions in the North. Chinese are also involved in other communication projects now underway beyond Kathmandu.
Among them, China’s plans to build a road link between Kathmandu and Lumbini, an important Buddhist pilgrimage site located very close to Indian border, is the most important one. The Chinese government-backed Asia Pacific Exchange of Cooperation Foundation (APECF) agreed to provide $ 3 billion assistance for the Lumbini Development Project (LDP). The APECF had also to begin a survey for construction of a direct fast railway link between Kathmandu and Lumbini as part of the LDP. Though the funding got mired in controversy and stalled the project, it is likely to be revived when the concerns of India, Japan and South Korea are resolved on its impact on the holy seat of Lumbini.
Strategic concerns on Northeast connectivity
China has been keen to promote its direct connectivity to India’s northeast through two major routes. These are the Chumbi Valley route (from Lhasa-Shigatse-Chumbi Valley-Natula) and the Burma-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor. Both have significant economic and strategic implications for both India and China. These are related to China’s dispute over the alignment of Mc Mahon Line which forms the Indo-Tibet border in Arunachal Pradesh as well as China’s claim over the entire Arunachal Pradesh (termed as Southern Tibet by the Chinese).
In case of a military confrontation with India, development of China’s road and rail access through Chumbi Valley in conjunction with the opening up of BCIM corridor will increase China’s strategic options cut off India’s Northeast from the rest of the country.
The Chumbi Valley geographically forms a wedge between Sikkim and Bhutan. India’s traditional trading route runs through the Chumbi Valley to Shigatse, an important communication centre. After the Lhasa-Shigatse road was developed Shigatse has become a strategic communication hub as it connects the roads from North, South, West and East increasing PLA’s logistics and mobility to Indian border.
Sikkim is strategically situated astride the narrow land corridor linking Northeast states with the rest of India. In case of a military confrontation with India, development of China’s road and rail access through Chumbi Valley in conjunction with the opening up of BCIM corridor will increase China’s strategic options cut off India’s Northeast from the rest of the country. It could also compromise India’s control over Arunachal Pradesh.
The BCIM is a multi-modal infrastructure initiative to increase sub-regional economic cooperation among the member nations (Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar). It envisages the development of the infrastructure facilities and road, rail, water and air connectivity to improve interconnectivity for free movement of goods and promote trade among the four member nations. It is estimated to benefit approximately 440 million people from Yunnan Province of China to Myanmar, Bangladesh, and India’s eastern states including Bihar.
India had been reluctant to join China in promoting Northeast connectivity. On the other hand land connectivity with China looks inevitable as it will trigger economic development of Northeast states contributing to the neutralisation of separatist insurgencies in this neglected region of India.
This has induced India to agree in principle to join China to promote the BCIM Economic Corridor after Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and Chinese Premier Le Keqiang met in May 2013. They signed a MoU to establish their own study groups on the BCIM economic corridor to promote this initiative.[ii]
India has concerns about the BCIM corridor because it would open up a direct eastern axis from Yunnan to support China’s large territorial and border claims in Arunachal Pradesh.
India’s Northeast states as well as Bangladesh have been upbeat about the BCIM corridor. The BCIM concept also fits in well with India’s ‘Look East Policy’ as well as its multimodal connectivity projects to link north eastern states with ASEAN region and to provide them sea access to Myanmar’s Sittwe port.
However, India has concerns about the BCIM corridor because it would open up a direct eastern axis from Yunnan to support China’s large territorial and border claims in Arunachal Pradesh. The BCIM passes through vital communication bottlenecks astride logistic routes of all the seven states in the region. China had in the past supported separatist insurgencies of this region. Though it has ceased to do so since 1989, it will have the option to do so easily when the BCIM corridor comes up. Moreover, the progress of the BCIM corridor as well as its optimal use could be affected unless separatist conflicts are neutralised. So the BCIM may take some time to come to fruition.
Reviving the Maritime Silk Route
In October 2013, President Xi Jinping announced China’s intention to launch the 21stCentury Maritime Silk Road (MSR) plan to link the Pacific and Indian Ocean during a visit to Southeast Asia. After Premier Le Keqiang announced the setting up a $ 495 million (Yuan 3 billion) maritime cooperation fund to support MSR, its promotion has become China’s key diplomatic initiative. China has sounded most of the nations of Asia-Pacific including Malaysia, Singapore, India, Sri Lanka and the Gulf countries on the initiative.
Though details of the MSR came out much later China’s intentions in taking up this project in South Asian perspective appear to be three fold.
China has developed a large network of roads both to the border and laterally between key communication centres of Xinjiang and Tibet while India has lagged behind in doing so in its border territories.
- To assist China’s increasing profile in South Asian countries and protect China’s growing economic and strategic interests in the region.
- To profitably use maritime assets created with Chinese investment in developing port infrastructure in Gwadar (Pakistan), Hambantota and Colombo (Sri Lanka) and Myanmar. It is poised to develop Chittagong port (Bangladesh) also. The MSR would enable China to promote its interests among Indian Ocean littorals
The MSR could facilitate the PLAN’s ambitious plan to assert its strength in Indian Ocean as well to protect China’s sea lanes of communication in the region
Though MSR will also promote India’s economic activity it would increase China’s threat to India’s maritime power projection in Indian Ocean Region. It could also enhance China’s electronic snooping and human intelligence capabilities.
China has developed a large network of roads both to the border and laterally between key communication centres of Xinjiang and Tibet while India has lagged behind in doing so in its border territories. This gives China a definite advantage in protecting and securing its territorial interests relating to India. Conscious of this China had objected when India embarked upon development of road infrastructure in border areas.
This situation has continued even after both the countries signed a Border Defence Agreement (BDA) to manage such differences. Thus India’s vital border communication development continues to be subject to the vagaries of China’s interpretation of the agreement. This has to be borne in mind while handling China’s desire to increase connectivity to India and the rest of South Asia.
In spite of this, India should encourage and foster cooperation with China to improve road and transportation connectivity because it would contribute to the rapid development of trade and commerce between the two countries.
The PEC on completion would give China strategic access not only to Arabian Sea through Gwadar port but also to the sensitive areas of POK and India’s border with Pakistan.
However, there is a need to exercise caution to ensure the projects do not increase our strategic vulnerability. Suitable caveats should be included in any agreements on such projects to ensure that they do not compromise either the security of sensitive areas or assist China in giving form to its territorial claims over Indian Territory.
There are a whole lot of strategic security concerns for India on the Western sector bordering Pakistan ever since China started implementing the PEC project. The PEC on completion would give China strategic access not only to Arabian Sea through Gwadar port but also to the sensitive areas of POK and India’s border with Pakistan. As Pakistan is China’s close strategic ally, the PEC can give form and content to bring greater convergence in their strategic interests relating to India.
There are similar concerns about China’s growing connectivity and linkages with Nepal also. However, Nepal-India relations are age-old and bound by each other’s interest. While Nepal’s desire to take advantage of China for its own development is understandable and improvement in connectivity is inevitable, India needs to factor this while shaping its Nepal policy.
There is no doubt that the BCIM corridor would enable the backward regions of both India and China to join national developmental mainstream. It would tremendously increase two-way trading opportunities of both China and India, benefitting Yunnan province of China and Northeast Indian states, apart from Burma and Bangladesh.
China would also gain a more convenient and direct land access avoiding Himalayan passes to reach the huge Indian market and also the under exploited markets of other South Asian countries. On the other hand, India would be able to add more vigour to the Look East Policy by gaining speedier land access to the markets of ASEAN and Southeast Asia. This could result in increasing economic opportunities for Indian youth in troubled North-eastern states, providing them incentive to give up extremism.
India should be strategically ready to factor these aspects while opening up the BCIM corridor for China.
On the other hand, BCIM opens up a strategic axis from Chinese mainland to enter Northeast India. It cuts across chokepoints on the lines of communication to India’s disputed border areas in Arunachal Pradesh. In the past China had provided arms and military training to separatist insurgents from the North-eastern states in the corridor. While China has given up this policy, it still retains the option to do so.
Even now extremist groups from Nagaland, Manipur and Assam deal with Chinese gun runners. Such clandestine activities would be made easier when the BCIM corridor is wide open. India should be strategically ready to factor these aspects while opening up the BCIM corridor for China.
Overall the issue of China’s strategic connectivity to South Asia is directly related to India’s security interests in the region. Building greater understanding and credibility between India and China is the only way to take advantage of the opportunities it offers to develop India. This process could take time and present global and regional strategic climate augurs well for India and China to embark upon this.
[ii] Joint Statement- A vision for future development of India-China strategic and cooperative partnership, October 23, 2013 http://mea.gov.in