The Chinese trishul in South Asia

Mahendra P Lama


Mahendra P LamaFor a country with 14 neighbours, China remained a regional power without a regional policy for a long time. But a new China has, in recent years, adopted a sophisticated trishul (trident) approach at the local, national and regional level, especially in South Asia. At the local level, the Khunjerab Pass on the Karakoram highway in Pakistan; Tatopani and Kerung-Rasuwagadhi in Nepal; the Wakhan Corridor in northeast of Afghanistan; and Nathu la, Shipki la and Lipulekh in India are signs of integration, aimed at the borderland geography and communities. These instruments are likely to be mainstreamed and transformed into national and cross-regional grids.

For instance, the Khunjerab Pass recorded a trade volume of nearly one billion dollars in 2019, and is already connected with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through the Karakoram highway. The Shigatse-Lhasa-Shanghai railway line is proposed to be extended to Nathu la in Sikkim and Kerung-Rasuwagadhi in Nepal. Besides the use of the Chinese renminbi (RMB) in trade — such as the $6 billion border trade between Muse (Myanmar) and Ruili (Kunming-China) — foreign exchange reserves in RMB are being promoted.At the national level, China has already grabbed a significant portion of South Asia’s trade volume.

China-South Asia trade recorded an over five-fold jump from a mere $1.18 billion in 1990 to $5.57 billion in 2000, and another 23-fold jump to $127.36 billion in 2018. Over 23% of the total global imports of Bangladesh, 15% of India, 24% of Pakistan and 19% of Sri Lanka are from China. All South Asian countries now have a significant trade deficit with China. Bhutan is the only country which has steadfastly remained outside the trishul framework, despite the Doklam intrusion and other fresh claims by China.From Hambantota and Colombo Port City in Sri Lanka to investing $3 billion each in the Payra Power project and the Dhaka-Chittagong railway in Bangladesh, from putting in $8.62 billion to complete eight energy projects under the CPEC in Pakistan to planning railway lines to Indian and the Nepalese highland borderlands, China has upset India’s predominant position both as a traditionally core neigbouring country and influential economic-democratic-military power.

At the regional level, China has adopted four methods.First, it has entered the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) process, and promoted the Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM) cooperation initiative. Second, it exploits forums it leads, such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (Brics) initiative, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Boao Forum, to attract South Asian countries into its fold. Third, it has effectively started using newly-created development funding agencies such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Silk Road Fund to finance projects in South Asia.

Fourth, the gradual unfolding of region-wide projects such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)   and its alignment with regional and sub-regional groupings in South Asia in the next few years will further extend its reach.India has reacted to China’s trishul strategy in four ways. It announced a “neighbourhood-first” policy, and re-engaged neighbours with a more liberal attitude. It initiated interventions such as waterways, railways and a gas pipeline in Nepal, and established electricity grid connections with Bangladesh. It blocked Saarc, and reinvigorated counter-balancing regional institutions such as the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) initiative and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec). But India has not come up with a comprehensive counter-trishul approach yet.India’s neighbourhood is now entangled in an unparalleledbalancing dilemma. These countries are striving diplomatically to convey an impression of non-alignment. Aware that the cost of alignment, even at the perception level, could generate suspicion, they consciously appease India on its core concerns such as terrorism.

But India is adept at immediately sensing significant deviations in their foreign policy. Nepal’s tilt towards China, even without major formal agreements and projects, was obvious. Later, when Nepal signed Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) related to access to ports, partnership in BRI initiatives, and other trade and investment ventures with China. India unsuccessfully tried to use the proverbial stick but had to quickly fall back on the theme of historic and cultural ties. These nations fear that the competitive and conflictual existence of two giant neighbours, however beneficial, can result in micro-management in their domestic affairs.

This could even jeopardise their sovereignty.When Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa visited India to allay apprehensions about his earlier “aligned posture”, and when the Maldives President Ibrahim Solih reassured India of its traditional hold in the island, they were, in fact, trying to evolve a new balancing technique. In Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, overwhelmed by President Xi Jinping’s liberal investment announcement in 2016, said that Bangladesh would maintain “good relations with everyone. The purchasing power of our people will increase, and who will be the bigger beneficiary of that in our region? India. India is best poised to benefit from the Bangladeshi market”. China’s trishul approach, India’s attempts to counter it, and the new balancing code being adopted by smaller neighbours, is transforming South Asia.

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