India-China relations: New Delhi needs better ties with neighbours to tackle Beijing's String of Pearls

India-China relations have a major impact on the region. There is a perception that China has been moving very strongly into India’s neighbourhood with her dollar diplomacy.

The South Asian region is in dire need of support for its growth and development. India was not able to help her neighbours because of three reasons: One, her own financial requirements for uplifting the population was enormous. Second, her delivery mechanisms for the promises made by India’s leaders leave much to be desired. Third, there is also a suspicion in the minds of smaller countries regarding India’s intentions.

File image of Xi Jinping. Reuters

File image of Xi Jinping. Reuters

China has started showing interest in Afghanistan. She sent her first consignment of weapons and equipment in July 2016. Recently, there have been reports that Chinese PLA and Afghan troops have carried out coordinated patrolling.

China has also facilitated talks with the Taliban. She was also part of the Russia-China-Pakistan trilateral talks on Afghanistan in 2016. She is increasing her investments in that country.

China – Nepal relations have seen the maximum growth in the recent times. China has been investing in road construction, hydroelectric projects, dry ports, World Peace City in Lumbini, creation of China Study Centres, an airport in Pokhara, optical fibre cable connectivity from Kathmandu to Chinese border and a railway line connecting Lhasa and Nepal.

In 2014, for the first time, her investments in Nepal were more than that of India. The first China-Nepal joint military exercise is about to take place from 16 April, 2017. Maoist insurgency in Nepal, though that movement had no link to Mao or China, brought China closer to Nepal.

China is Myanmar’s largest trading partner with an annual trade of US $ 13.05 billion. Pipelines from Kyaukphyu to Kunming were completed in 2015. A copper mine in Letpadaung, Kyaukphyu Deep Sea Port and Special Economic Zone project, an oil refinery in Dawei and supply of military equipment during the period when Myanmar was under sanctions marked cooperation between China and Myanmar. China also assists Myanmar in handling the ethnic strife in Myanmar’s north east.

China is also Bangladesh’s largest trade partner. Xi Jinping, during his visit to Bangladesh in October 2016, signed a number of agreements and memorandum of understanding for infrastructure construction, energy, power, transportation, communication and establishment of economic and industrial zones worth approximately $25 billion. China is also developing Sonadia Port. 80 percent of Bangladesh armed forces’ equipment comes from China.

In Sri Lanka, China is involved in major infrastructure projects: The construction of Hambantota port, a SEZ and refinery near that port, Colombo South Harbour and Port City projects, Norochcholai thermal power plant, a number of roads, railway lines, Mattala airport. China’s military supplied Sri Lanka arms worth $ 1.2 billion, at a discounted 'friendship' rate. China also provided weapons and equipment to Sri Lanka during her war against LTTE.

China is assisting Maldives with infrastructure projects: Developing Laamu Atoll, construction of Male-Hulumale bridge, upgrading Male airport, tourism resorts and housing projects. Chinese tourists make up 30 percent of visitors to Maldives.

Thus, India feels concerned about China’s forays into her neighbourhood. China, for its part, has done nothing to help improve her relationship with India. She has stood in the way of India getting permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council on the premise that India has joined hands with Japan, who has a frosty relationship with China.

China has also been an impediment in India getting a membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group on procedural issues. But she has also indicated that she will support Pakistan’s induction into the group. One is not sure how that will overcome the procedural impediments, in addition to the fact that Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation record is far from satisfactory. China also repeatedly placed on technical hold and then vetoed India and other countries’ application to proscribe some leaders from Pakistan as terrorists. The organisations that these individuals lead have already been placed on the proscribed list by the United Nation's 1267 Sanctions Committee.

Because of these issues, the countries in the region are unsure of the relationship that they need to pursue with India and China. Some countries try to play India and China against each other to their own benefit. Sub-regional groupings like Saarc have not been effective due to India-Pakistan relations and China’s support to Pakistan. The relations between countries in the Indo-Pacific, as the region covering Indian and Pacific Oceans have come to be known in recent times, is dominated to some extent by India-China relations.

India-China relations also have an impact in the Central Asian Republics, Mongolia, North and South Korea, Japan, Vietnam and ASEAN. Connectivity projects in the region are affected adversely by this bilateral relationship. Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Corridor which preceded China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has been included by China as part of the BRI.

While India supports the corridor, including it in the BRI has not gone down well with her. Bhutan-Bangladesh-India-Nepal Motor Vehicles Agreement was signed in June 2015 to have seamless connectivity between these countries and facilitate multi modal transportation. While Bangladesh, Nepal and India have ratified it, Bhutan is yet to ratify it due to environmental concerns.

Any discussion on China’s influence in the region will not be complete without discussing her relations with Pakistan. It appears that China has taken it upon herself to assist Pakistan out of her financial quagmire. In addition to the assistance China provides to Pakistan diplomatically and militarily, the economic angle of the relationship is gaining momentum with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

The project that started with just $46 billion has gone up to approximately $55 billion with various projects getting added to it. On 12 April, 2017 Dr Farookh Saleem in his column in The International News of Pakistan questioned as to how the eight power plants that are being constructed in Pakistan will raise a surplus of $ 2.4 billion as payment to China in the first year of their operations. It seems Chinese assistance does not offer free lunches to the recipients.

India has started reaching out to her neighbours. During the recent visit of Sheikh Hasina, overlooking protocol, Prime Minister Narendra Modi received her at the airport. A $5 Billion credit line has been extended to Bangladesh, the highest amount given by India to any country.

Twenty-two agreements were signed during the visit. Even though the Teesta Water issue remained unresolved, the very fact that Mamata Banerjee took part in the visit held out hopes that the issue may get resolved sooner or later. This visit was a correct example of how India should maintain good relations with her neighbours. One sincerely hopes that this visit is a harbinger of things to come.

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Updated Date: Apr 15, 2017 15:17:39 IST

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