A Welcome Neighbor
Through time, China has been involved, yet not intrusive, in the South Asian region. Currently holding observer status in SAARC, the country has largely been a welcome friend and is looking to increase its diplomatic footprint.
China is the most opulent and economically the most advanced country in the region. Although apart from Bangladesh it was the last to gain independence, yet despite a humble beginning, China has risen like a phoenix from the ashes and due to astute policies of its founding fathers, has become the world’s second largest economy, which according to pundits, is likely to overtake the US in less than a decade. China’s rise as an economic and military power in the Asia Pacific region has significant implications for South Asia’s strategic and economic future. It is reshaping the balance of power and posing an economic challenge of considerable magnitude to a region that had been ahead of China in terms of its economic development until the 1990s. Let us examine China’s relations with South Asia.
China and Pakistan:
Friendship has been described by both Chinese and Pakistani leaders as being loftier than the Himalayas and deeper than the Indian Ocean because it is time-tested and all-weather. Pakistan stood by China when it was isolated and was treated as a pariah state till the seventies. Pakistan was its only window to western technology and trade. China has not forgotten Pakistan’s steadfast friendship and repays it by strongly supporting it on all fora.
China and India:
They are the world’s most populous states and also the fastest growing economies. The resultant growth in China and India’s global diplomatic and economic influence has also increased the significance of their bilateral relationship. Cultural and economic relations between the two date back to ancient times. Relations between contemporary China and India have been characterized by border disputes, resulting in three major military conflicts—the Sino-indian War of 1962, the Chola incident in 1967, and the 1987 Sino-indian skirmish. However, since the late 1980s, both countries have successfully attempted to re-ignite diplomatic and economic ties. In 2008, China emerged as the largest trading partner of India and the two countries have also attempted to extend their strategic and military relations. Despite an improvement in economic ties, certain irritants mar the relationship. India continues to provide refuge to Chinese dissident, the Dalai Lama; It acts as a protégé of the US, which is wary of China’s rise and wants to project India as a counterbalance to China; the US is also increasingly suspicious of growing PakChinese ties as well.
China and Afghanistan:
Their relations in the annals of history have involved the trade of fruit and tea via caravans through Xinjiang and the Wakhan Corridor. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the behest of the then Afghan regime soured relations for a while but the PRC has supported the war on terror as terrorism has affected China’s Xingiang province too. China is keen to help Afghanistan stand on its own
feet and enable it to fight the scourge of terrorism but is desirous of all foreign forces in Afghanistan to depart. It has invested in the reconstruction of Afghanistan and would like to see peace return there. China and Bangladesh:
The People’s Republic of China supported Pakistan against the Mukti Bahini/ Indian forces during the Bangladesh Liberation War that resulted in the establishment of Bangladesh. In 1972, China exercised its veto power as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to block Bangladesh’s entry into the UN. Bangladesh had aligned itself with India and the Soviet Union, both of whom had strained relations with Pakistan and China. With the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on August 15, 1975, the successive governments in Bangladesh distanced the country from India and the Soviet Union. At the same time, Pakistan warmed towards Bangladesh and diplomatic relations were established resulting in better Sino-bangladeshi ties. China and Sri Lanka:
The bond is decades old; the relationship expanded remarkably after Mahinda Rajapaksa became president in 2005. Since 2006, Beijing has provided Sri Lanka with $3.06 billion in financial assistance for various projects. Its aid to Sri Lanka, which was a few million dollars in 2005, jumped to $1.2 billion in 2009, over half the total aid the island has been offered by various countries. China is Sri Lanka’s largest aid donor today. An important reason for the close ties between the Rajapaksa government and China is Beijing’s robust endorsement and support of Colombo’s conduct in the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in which China helped Sri Lanka defeat the dissidents. China and Nepal:
The bilateral relations between the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal and the People’s Republic of China have been friendly and defined by Nepal’s policy of balancing the competing influences of China and Nepal’s southern neighbor India, the only two neighbors of the Himalayan state. However, with China’s thawing of relations with India, Nepal is also poised to benefit from China’s largesse in building up its land-locked economy. China and Bhutan:
Bhutan, which has been under the influence of India, closed its borders to China in 1960. However, in the 1970s, it adopted a more open policy which gradually increased contact between the two neighbors. Border talks, which started in 1984, resulted in an agreement in 1998 on maintaining peace and tranquility along the border areas. While China and Bhutan neither have diplomatic relations nor any legal trade, growing Chinese interests in South Asia encompass Bhutan as well. The small Himalayan nation, therefore, faces the dilemma of not hurting the interests and sentiments of its traditional friend India while at the same time needing to respond to Chinese overtures and to solve the border problem peacefully and urgently; in the Sino-bhutanese relationship, the Indian element remains the most important variable. China and the Maldives:
The two nations established diplomatic relations on October 14, 1972. However, Sino- Maldivian economic cooperation and trade volume are insignificant, with total trade in 2002 being only US$3 million. China’s main exports to Maldives are rice and consumer goods. In 2001, a deal was signed allowing China to establish a naval base in Marao. Relations between China and Maldives have further warmed up in President Mohamed Nasheed’s term.
In conclusion, China has declared that it wants no enmity with any country in the region. This bodes well for South Asia, which is keen to offer PRC a permanent membership of SAARC. In the economic arena, China looms both as an opportunity as well as a challenge. In the security arena, the implications of China’s military build-up are a key concern in the region for India, but China’s lack of hegemonistic tendencies downplays any fear of expansionism. Furthermore, in view of the growing influence of the US in the region, it is important to countervail the US role by providing regional balance through China. Since it is now an accepted practice to look to your neighbors for cooperation; South Asia is no exception. Group Captain (R) Sultan M. Hali, now a practicing journalist, has contributed over 2000 articles, produced 125 documentaries and hosts a TV talk show. He is currently based in Islamabad.