By: Ananya Sharma
The rise of China as a regional hegemon in South Asia is an inevitability that cannot be ignored. China’s rich political and economic history has led to its establishment as a formidable force in the region. China’s presence in South Asia can be classified into four historic and distinctive phases (Godwin, 2019). The ancient phase saw an emphasis on trade, cultural exchange, and Buddhism studies. In the medieval phase, there was a development of Buddhist art, architecture, and technological advancements. During their remote phase, China distanced itself from South Asian affairs as European colonialism began to gain power in the region. However, the fourth phase was marked by a significant shift in China’s stance towards South Asia. During the Cold War, they actively supported socialist movements and saw themselves as leaders of the global communist movement, motivated in part to counter the influence of India and the Soviet Union. Presently, the People’s Republic of China is the second-largest economy in the world after the United States of America, and its current positioning in South Asia is characterized by opportunities, growth, competition, and tensions (Wright, 2020). This paper aims to explore the factors contributing to China’s rise as a regional power in South Asia, delving deeper into its political, economic, and strategic objectives. It will first delve into China’s growing presence in South Asia, in the economic, political and security spheres. It will then go on to discuss how countries in South Asia have responded to their rise using strategic alliances and partnerships. The final section will investigate the implications of China’s dominance in the region and finally offer some suggestions for the future.
It is important to understand the rise of China and its consequent impact on the regional order as it has significant implications for the balance of power in the region and gives an insight into the changing partnerships and alliances which will aid policymakers to anticipate potential conflicts, opportunities for cooperation and effective policies to manage China’s rise in the region.
China’s growing presence in South Asia
For a comprehensive understanding of China’s rising economic imprint in this region, one must have a clear grasp of South Asia’s geography. The South Asian Region (SAR) is formed by seven nations: Sri Lanka, India, China, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, and the Maldives. Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal, and India all share a border with China. SAR has 22% of the global population and is currently the centre of middle-class expansion (Romi Jain, 2018). The U.S. has considerable economic and trading ties with South Asian nations, which enabled it to have a massive influence on regional affairs in South Asia (Saylor Academy, 2016).
Essentially every nation in South and Southeast Asia is now influenced by China’s presence. China has altered the power dynamics in the region by sponsoring infrastructure projects, developing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and fostering trade and investment ties (James McBride, Noah Berman, and Andrew Chatzky, 2023). The world economy’s centre of gravity has shifted to South Asia as a result of China’s resurgence as a significant economic force. China ranks first in economic relations and second in economic resources, which include variables like economic scale, international leverage, technology, and connectivity, according to the Asia Power Index, which analyses power in all possible fields (Romi Jain, 2018). China professes to be a regional “integrator,” which I feel has consequences. It has the authority to wield influence and generate interdependencies in the region. They have offered nations loans, grants, and technical assistance. The link between China and South Asian economies in terms of bilateral trade has never been better. Improved infrastructure and communication across the subcontinent have been promised by regional economic projects like the BRI. Countries, policymakers, and critics disagree, arguing that once their interests are served, they will no longer act in the country’s best interests (Grossman, 2020).
Although China approaches SAR nations differently, it pursues the same eventual outcome. They would be dependent on China. Links between China and these nations go back to the cold war, as seen most prominently by its “all-weather” alliance with Pakistan. They provided military equipment, assisted in the development of nuclear weapons, and aided them in all confrontations on Indian and Chinese border crossings. Nevertheless, with the developing friendship between India and the United States, both China and Pakistan have agreed to build the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is the foundation of BRI. The goal of CPEC is to link Western China and Western Pakistan. This will alleviate China’s ‘Malacca Dilemma,’ as they will be the greatest consumer of energy by 2023 (Singh, 2018).
Nepal, another nation in the area, has joined the BRI. According to the website of the Nepalese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “The Chinese support to Nepal is divided into three categories: grants (free aid), interest-free loans, and concessional loans… Upper Trishuli Hydropower Project- Power Station and Transmission Line Projects (Concessional Loan); food/material aid (Grant) in 15 bordering districts of northern Nepal; Kathmandu Ring Road Development Project with Flyover Bridges – (Grant); and Pokhara International Regional Airport (Loan) are some of the key ongoing projects under Chinese help” (Romi Jain, 2018). China has also obliged Bangladesh, a low-income nation in SAR. They have been yearning for infrastructure such as roads and bridges. and power – projects. With weak institutions and poor infrastructure, they find it tough to find a grounding in the developed world. China has come to Bangladesh’s rescue which they have eagerly accepted (Romi Jain, 2018).
Traditionally, India dominated the region, but it failed to match the expectations of the countries in the region. However, China is cultivating goodwill among the SAR nations by offering aid and material assistance to them. This is a means of limiting India’s presence on the subcontinent. China’s BRI programme offers infrastructural connections spanning Asia, Africa, Europe, and South Asia. China has completed BRI projects in Sri Lanka, which has increased the country’s electrical supplies. From 2016 and 2018, Pakistan and Bangladesh were the leading receivers of Chinese investment. Yet not all nations in the area support the BRI programme and have reservations about the additional help that China so generously provides. In contrast to Bhutan and India which have not joined the BRI (Jacob, 2019).
The BRI projects will have the same negative effects on the region, despite their promises of improved connectivity, increased commerce, economic growth, and connectedness. The effort, for instance, has drawn criticism for harming the environment. Several nations worry that they may fall prey to “debt trap diplomacy”, which refers to China’s strategy of using debt to further its geopolitical objectives (World Bank Group, 2019). Dept trap diplomacy has been seen in Sri Lanka with the Hambantota Port, the apprehension of other countries with context to this seems legit. Even though there isn’t much literature that proves that debt-trapping countries are China’s hidden intentions, there are multiple case studies that support this theory. Security considerations are a significant issue with this endeavour. The BRI is unpopular in India since it crosses through its territory, Gilgit-Baltistan. Militants have targeted and even killed Chinese workers who had been in Pakistan. I believe that another downfall of this project could be that a lot of countries will be forced to be at China’s whim in the biggest project they undertake. Notwithstanding, China faces numerous issues with this project. In my opinion, this project that is driving China to seize control and alter the regional order in SAR is the BRI effort (Awasthi, 2018).
Responses to China’s rise in South Asia
Recently, Sino-Indian undercurrents have become widespread. The Act East Policy became the foundation of Indian foreign policy after 2014, giving it fresh life. The reactions to China’s growing influence have been varied. Some nations have embraced China’s investments, while others are acting on the other end of the spectrum to balance their strength.
With the Cold War’s historical context and India’s growing proximity to the US, China felt endangered. Yet nothing in international relations is static. India has always had a multipolar vision of Asia. Following 2014, the Modi government expanded bilateral and multilateral relations with ASEAN since they shared the same goal. India and China have been at odds over several topics, including the Nuclear Suppliers Group, CPEC, and the Line of Actual Control conflict. Nonetheless, India is now a component of all existing South Asian platforms. ASEAN countries expect India to strengthen the region and act as a counterweight to China. Myanmar and Australia have also been included in Act East Policy. India has adopted a strong stance in the conflict over the South China Sea. The bilateral ties between India and Japan are another alliance that keeps Beijing on its toes. With their rise, India and Japan have altered the regional security system (Sujan R. Chinoy, 2020). This will guarantee that Asia stays multipolar. Vietnam and India have improved their ties. Vietnamese ports in the contentious South China Sea have been made available to Indian ships. Indonesia has presented China with one of its most difficult challenges. The dilemma of Malacca. Indonesia has made it clear that if the Malacca strait falls into the hands of unfriendly players, China would be deprived of its oil source. India and Indonesia enjoy friendly maritime ties. Indonesia has granted India access to this port as part of its overall commercial infrastructure development. China is hence quite worried. The Malaysian Prime Minister has ordered a reassessment of all 3 key Chinese projects in the nation, anticipating that they would not provide the advantages promised. This indicates the fear of countries vis-a-vis China’s “aid”. Myanmar contributes significantly to the power balance as well. To establish its influence in the Bay of Bengal, China seized key areas of the peninsula. Myanmar’s new leadership has resulted in strengthened relations with India. India and Australia have joined hands to contain China’s overarching presence in the region. India is a part of QUAD, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue has improved defence cooperation between member countries, primarily, India Australia Japan and the US (Erik Brattberg, Philippe Le Corre, 2019). The securitization of the QUAD makes China uneasy. Improved Indo-US relations over the past few years have empowered India to be a worthy balancing muscle against China. The Communication, Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCSA) became the prime outcome between India and the United States. The US has encouraged India’s presence in the Indo – Pacific, and the two countries have conducted tri-services exercises. The Indo – Pacific has also given India and Japan a good opportunity to contain China’s dominance. The alliances formed in SAR are majorly in response to China’s rise. India from their ‘non-aligned’ stance has turned to be more proactive. India and China have tried to establish bilateral relations, PM Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping have met numerous times – yet their relations seem more to be driven by insecurity and competition than cooperation. This has curtailed full growth for the region. Sino – Pak relations are detrimental to India, and the growing closeness of Indo – US relations pushes China and Pakistan closer (Singh, 2018). Countries have managed to form meaningful alliances and strategic partnerships to boost infrastructural development, strengthen their military capabilities, and increase trade. These partnerships and alliances are attributed to a response to China’s rise. In my opinion, this serves two main purposes for the region; first, if countries focus on further strengthening these ties, it could empower countries making them less dependent on China which also allows them to be completely sovereign to make political decisions that are fully in favour of their country and not influenced by anyone else. Second, strategic partnerships in the region can also act as a balancing factor towards western hegemony.
Implications for the regional order in South Asia
China’s growing influence has impacted the regional order in innumerable ways. Implications of the same could be broadly divided into 5 categories. First, the economic impact, which in my opinion is the most evident. BRI and other investments made by China in South Asian countries, as discussed above can translate into development for the region, however, it raises economic concerns for smaller nations such as unequal power dynamics, corruption, and debt sustainability. The security impact of the expansion of China’s military powers and assertiveness is a big implication for the regional order. Their growing naval presence in the Indian Ocean has made India fear a potential strategic encirclement. China has also phenomenally increased its involvement with the countries in SAR, this is a diplomatic impact that comes hand in hand with the rise of China (Art, 2010). Their primary motivation remains to underpin India’s dominance in the region. Which has resulted in closer ties between India, Japan, and the US. Counterbalancing China’s rise on the contrary is what brings historic rivals together. Another factor that plays up in these power equations is China’s unflinching support towards Pakistan, this political implication suggests, China’s support for authoritarian regimes that undermines democratic institutions in the region. The environmental impact that infrastructural projects taken on by China has raised questions, rightfully so, about environmental degradation, particularly in the areas such as the Himalayas and the Brahmaputra Basin. All these factors mentioned above play a huge role in changing the Balance of power dynamics in the region. Indo – China competition stands at the centre of all these factors. In my opinion, smaller states could benefit from this rivalry, they could empower themselves, however, the chance of getting crushed if a full-blown conflict ever broke out it would paralyse their functioning. Hence, self-sufficiency should be the end goal for them. They need to tactfully establish their relations with both India and China. China’s debt diplomacy as discussed earlier has also been a significant implication for the regional order. Sri Lanka and Maldives have faced the brunt of it, and many others fear the same (Brian Lee Crowley and Shuvaloy Majumdar and David McDonough, 2017).
In this final section, I would like to discuss the potential for conflict and cooperation in the region. The rising influence of China has very evidently made the region a perfect breeding ground for both cooperation and conflict. The first potential conflict would be between India and Pakistan. China’s military, political and economic aid to Pakistan is a major bone of contention between India and China. The CPEC passing through the disputed territory of Kashmir is a huge security concern for India. China blocked India’s move to declare Maulana Azhar a global terrorist, this is because China needs Islamabad’s help in quelling the terror network in the western province of Xingjian. Another potential conflict is the escalation of the LAC dispute between India and China. The Chinese military has shown aggression in the past which was responded to by the Indian Army with equal force. These escalations can further into full-blown conflicts if the two big powers in the region don’t resort to cooperating with one another (David M. Malone, 2010).
Keeping that in mind, there also have been attempts to bolster cooperation in the region. India and China have met at numerous international forums and multilateral organizations like the BRICS group, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). India and China are part of these organizations intending to promote economic cooperation, conjoining in the domain of security and the cultural sphere. However, the tensions in my opinion currently outweigh the cooperative measures that are undertaken. The two countries must share a common vision and need to be less insecure about each other’s presence in the region for true cooperation and growth to occur.
The regional order has been significantly impacted by China’s ascent in South Asia. China has resorted to using a variety of methods to increase its influence in the area. The driving forces behind this expansion have been economic might, border militarization, and infrastructure development. China has recently grown increasingly forceful and hostile, which has had a significant impact on the SAR. The growing competition between India and China, which drives the South Asian narrative, is one of the most significant shifts in the area. China now totally succeeds India as the main power in the area, which it previously held. The path involves CPEC, financial aid, and assisting smaller nations in developing infrastructure. adopted by China to amplify its hegemony. I think China will continue to take an aggressive approach in this region in order to further its geopolitical goals in the future. It won’t let India make a declaration of supremacy. Having said that, India and many other countries like Bhutan, Vietnam, and Indonesia in the region and coming together to counterbalance China’s position. One such potent illustration is the Malacca Strait dilemma. Future issues will arise for China if its stance incites hostility among the region’s nations. When it comes to security, China needs to be more sympathetic to India’s attitude towards Kashmir if it wants to create a constructive partnership. Now, India sees it as a tremendous violation of its national sovereignty. South Asia is not yet a unipolar zone. China’s supremacy is actively being restrained by international groups like SAARC, ASEAN, and SCO. It is critical to keep in mind that China’s growing influence in South Asia extends beyond only economic and military considerations and encompasses soft power operations as well. China has been pushing its media, language, and culture there, which has allowed it to establish a presence and win over the hearts and minds of the populace. For India, which has always possessed a cultural and linguistic edge in the area, this has posed a serious issue. India must increase its efforts to market its soft power assets and forge closer cultural and academic linkages with the nations of South Asia if it is to compete with China in this area. India can only expect to offset China’s increasing influence in the world by achieving this. However, to promote a brighter future for the region, India and China need to function cohesively, and they need to strengthen their economic ties. Asia can emerge as a force to reckon on the global stage if both countries, engage in producing meaningful outcomes. This can be possible through better diplomatic efforts, and confidence-building measures such as humanitarian aid, cultural exchange etc. Capitalising on shared interests such as making Asia the new epicentre of the world economy and boosting growth by helping smaller nations develop sustainably could be another way forward. China and India need to address the imbalances caused by the reasons mentioned above for a brighter future for the region of South Asia.