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.

Southasia - - Cover story - By S. M. Hali

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.

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