With most South Asian nations sharing a history that is marred by ethnic, religious and geographic disputes, forming a seamless Union of cooperating members was not going to be easy even in the best of circumstances. Increasingly dwarfing, however, all intra-SAARC issues is the escalating India-China rivalry in the region.
For the purpose of brevity, let’s restrict ourselves to the rivalry between the two giants with regards the three South Asian nations mentioned in the previous section.
Landing a blow to the recently growing bilateral relations between the two countries, Chinese President Xi Jinping on September 6 cancelled his scheduled visit to Nepal in October.
What was not lost upon the region’s analysts was the timing of the decision—coming as it did around the three-day India visit of the new Nepalese Prime Minister Mr Pushpa Kamal Dahal, also known as Prachanda.
While the ostensible reasons for the move appear to be the Chinese disappointment with Nepal’s apparent lack of preparedness and commitment to joining ‘One Belt, One Road’—a project connecting China with the rest of Eurasia – and the Nepalese administration ‘not implementing the agreements and understandings’ agreed upon between the two countries during former Nepal prime minister Mr. K P Oli’s visit to Beijing in March, it is understood that the Beijing is upset about the recent turn of events in Nepal that lead to the ouster of Oli, considered to be pro-China.
This, Beijing feels, after China quickly transported about 1,000 metric tonnes of petroleum to Nepal to allow it to tide over the severe shortage of fuel and other essential commodities during the Madhesi blockade of entry points with India. The Chinese government had also gone out of its way to pledge support to Nepal’s ‘geographical integrity and sovereignty’ during the crisis.
The Beijing-friendly Oli, shortly after resigning just before a trust vote that he was expected to lose, said that the opposition parties “hatched a conspiracy for narrow interests, and I am stunned by that”. The ‘conspiracy’, China believed, was the handiwork of India.
His ouster and Prachanda deciding to choose India for his official visit, even though a norm in the Indo-Nepalese context, is seen as a victory of sort by the Indian establishment, which expects Nepal to move closer to India again.
Meanwhile, the impoverished nation of 28 million awaits reconstruction and rehabilitation after the deadly 2015 earthquake.
A similar contest between the dragon and the elephant is active in Bangladesh too.
China has a deep interest in and is heavily invested in Bangladesh. It is, in fact, Bangladesh’s largest trading partner. It has bagged a $705 million contract for a two-lane tunnel under the Karnaphuli River and the $4.47 billion Padma Bridge rail link project. The Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) recently granted a $66 million loan for two power distribution projects and the improvement of transmission lines in Bangladesh.
China is also Bangladesh’s main supplier of military hardware, supplying five maritime patrol vessels, surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles, 16 fighter jets, 45 tanks and two corvettes in the last five years. The new Ming-class Chinese submarines are likely to be added to the Bangladesh naval fleet later this year.
However, China has recently suffered two stunning setbacks in the country.
India’s state-owned Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL) bagged a $1.6 billion power station construction contract in Bangladesh after undercutting its Chinese rival, the Harbin Electric International Company. The 1,320MW thermal power station will be the largest foreign project by an Indian power company. The Indian government’s external lending arm, the Exim Bank, would provide more than two-thirds of the funding at the low soft interest for the project.
The deal is seen as the ‘second big win’ by India over China in Bangladesh, after the cancellation of the long-deliberated China-Bangladesh deal to build the huge Sonadia deep-sea port near Chittagong, the country’s major port.
The Sonadia port was seen in India as a part of China’s ‘string of pearls’, a network of Chinese military and commercial facilities in the Indian Ocean region. New Delhi views these ‘pearls’ as a Chinese strategy to encircle India. The port would have been dangerously close to India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a strategically important archipelago of 572 islands that houses a military base and surveillance and monitoring stations.
The Indian government has now expressed interest in building a $15.5 billion deep-sea Payra Port project, to the west of Bangladesh’s choked Chittagong port, and very close to the Indian coastline.
The Indian response to the Chinese presence in Bangladesh extends to other areas of cooperation too. Indian Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi, during his visit to Dhaka in June 2015, signed 22 agreements with the Sheikh Hasina government – including deals on ending a four-decade border dispute between the two countries, maritime security and the establishment of special economic zones in Bangladesh.
India and Bangladesh have also agreed to India building a transit route to its northeast region via Bangladesh by rail, road, and waterways.
At the Bangladesh Investment and Policy Summit in Dhaka on 24 and 25 January 2016, an Indian team of businessmen and investors promised over $11 billion for infrastructure projects in Bangladesh, including an LNG power plant and a gas pipeline from India to Bangladesh.
The last is yet to be written in the India-China geopolitical rivalry in Bangladesh.
But the biggest and the most volatile geopolitical theatre for the bitter contest between the two giants is the proposed $46 billion (41 billion Euros) China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The corridor is devised to link Pakistan’s southern Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea to China’s western Xinjiang region.
But it passes through what India claims is its territory illegally occupied by Pakistan (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, or PoK).
The area also serves as the home to two of the many Pakistan-based groups that the US and the European Union have designated as terrorist outfits – Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM). Beijing’s refusal to designate JeM chief Masood Azhar at the UN Security Council in April 2016 had greatly irked India.
In a one-to-one meeting on September 5 with Chinese President Mr Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hangzhou city, Indian Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi is said to have conveyed that New Delhi and Beijing “would have to be sensitive to each other’s strategic interests“.
Prior to the G20 Summit in China, Indian prime minister’s public mention of Balochistan during his Independence Day speech to the nation on August 15 had triggered a wave of alarm both in Pakistan and China.
A rather innocuous statement thanking the people of Balochistan (and not Pakistan, its parent nation) for good wishes to him was noted because CPEC, on the Pakistani side, ends in that restive province.
During a seminar in the Paroon area of Panjgur district on September 2, activists of one such group, the Balochistan Republican Party (BRP), said Islamabad wants to build the CPEC in the region “on the dead bodies of Baloch people with Beijing’s help“.
Pakistan has long accused India of creating trouble in the region via funding and arming insurgent groups that are fighting for independence for the region.
Talking to India’s leading news daily The Times of India recently, South Asia expert Hu Shisheng said:
“My personal view is that if India is adamant and if Indian factor is found by China or Pakistan in disrupting the process of CPEC, if that becomes a reality, it will really become a disturbance to China-India relations, India-Pakistan relations“.
In other words, one of the most serious global military escalations could just be a corridor away.
There is a heated game of one-upmanship going on between India and China in Sri Lanka and Maldives too. But about that at a later time.
Clearly, after being grounded by India-Pakistan tensions for the most part of its two-decade history, the Association has now been completely turned into a sideshow of the India-China geopolitical one-upmanship.
The contest, I’m afraid, is between two very ancient civilisations and current global powers. Everything suggests that it would outlast the India-Pakistan rivalry by a civilizational distance. And that can have far-reaching consequences for the utopian idea called the South Asian Union.
Note: This piece was written prior to a deadly terror attack on an Indian military facility on September 18, which killed 17 Indian army personnel. All the four killed terrorists belonged to the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad terror group. This led to India and five other nations pulling out of the 19th SAARC Summit, leading to the cancellation of the same.