While China’s strategic interests in India’s neighbourhood have increased Beijing’s engagement with the region in the past two decades, this has not been an entirely unilateral decision. There has also been a demand from the nations that has acted as a “pull factor” to support Beijing’s forays over the years.
Balance to India
An important reason for China’s increasing presence in the region is the perceived Indian hegemony. Previously, “although these states have slipped out of the Indian leash and challenged India on several occasions, they have largely conceded that they do not possess the strategic depth or the military or economic capacity to counter Indian hegemony, and neither has India been overly concerned about these states.” This notion, however, changed with the rise of China, the inauguration of the BRI, and the increasing Chinese engagement in the region where governments viewed Beijing as an extra-regional power to balance New Delhi with. Beijing, therefore, benefitted the most from India’s relations with its neighbours where India was also unable to translate its superior resources into protecting New Delhi’s regional interests.
In these countries currently, it is often the case that the party in government has an orientation either favourable to either India or China, and the main opposition is favourable to the other. Nevertheless, China’s position as a key partner has shown to be resistant to major political changes since Beijing has established itself as indispensable. This includes infrastructure and investment financing which puts them in a strong position to build and maintain relations with any developing country, regardless of who is in power.
China’s Economic Prowess
There is no doubt that China is also an economically attractive partner, particularly when it comes to developmental assistance. The developing region has thus been forthcoming of Beijing’s overtures in this domain, which has been bolstered through the BRI. Over the past two decades, China’s investments in the region have increased significantly, and encompass investments in multiple sectors, including connectivity and transport, energy, technology, and real estate, amongst others. While India does have numerous development projects in each of its neighbours, it is impossible to match China’s treasury project for project. As the implementation of the BRI began, Beijing has also driven the narrative of being an indispensable partner due to the speed and accuracy with which it claims to execute these projects; some of those, however, have been questioned. Additionally, although China is not necessarily the primary partner, with some governments preferring Western countries or other multilateral organisations, the premium placed on economic development and demand for resources provides China “a ready entrée to the region.” Chinese tourists are another valuable and growing source of inflows into the region, particularly in Sri Lanka, and the Maldives, where tourism is a significant contributor to their economies.
Another contentious point has been the neighbourhood viewing Beijing as a politically reliable partner when compared to New Delhi. From the perspective of the neighbours, this stems from two main factors.
First, India’s foreign policy has previously been accused of ignoring the neighbourhood. Furthermore, the central government in New Delhi has clashed with state governments on foreign policy (for example, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal’s opposing stances from New Delhi on foreign relations with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh) that has hampered bilateral relations and often resulted in distrust.
Second, barring Myanmar, China does not share a direct border with Sri Lanka, Maldives, or Bangladesh. For the most part, when compared to India, China’s bilateral relations in the neighbourhood are not marred by history and nation-building. For Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and even Myanmar to some extent, religious, ethnic, and linguistic ties bind them with India—which often leads to contentious relations with their bigger neighbour—and impinge on the development of their relations.
This excerpt from ‘The China Factor’ by Shantanu Roy-Chaudhury has been published with permission from K W Publishers.