China’s port development in India’s neighbourhood forces the perception of threats to national security.
In 1947, noted Irish historian Nicolas Mansergh wrote an article on the Asian Conference of 1946 in the International Affairs and remarked that China was opposed to India’s cultural leadership in the region and China’s representatives lost no opportunity of saying that all nations in Asia were equal that there was no question of any leadership. China, which had just emerged victorious from the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression in which she lost 35 million of its people, found it indigestible to see a poor and backward Asian country like India asserting leadership not only in the region but at the global stage too by way of creating the NAM. India’s neutrality and its leadership aspirations were denounced by China from the very first day.
The hostilities along the border, the Dalai Lama’s flight to India in the aftermath of the Tibetan upraising in 1959, and India’s refusal to renew the 1954 agreement on Tibet, brought the relationship to a nadir culminating into a brief armed conflict in the Himalayas and then a deep freeze in diplomatic relations for almost three decades. It was beyond any doubt that in the wake of China’s hostilities with India, it acted as a countervailing force in the region vis-à-vis India, encouraged anti-India forces in the subcontinent and supported military dictatorships in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Though China has never admitted to the “String of Pearls” theory to contain India, however, the port development it has undertaken in India’s immediate neighbourhood, has forced India to perceive these as threats to its national security.
For example, China has built a naval base in Gwadar, Pakistan as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project, the flagship of the Belt and Road Project. It may be a commercial port, however, in the case of hostilities, the facility could be used as a military base. China arming Pakistan with J-17, S20 diesel-electric submarines based on the Yuan-class (Type 039A-series) design, and nuclear weapons demonstrates the utility of Pakistan as a pivot for China. China’s investment in and lease of Hambantota port in Sri Lanka show its depth in the region. In Bangladesh too, the Chinese built Chittagong port, could be converted into a military one depending on the equations between India-Bangladesh and China. China is deepening its engagement with Myanmar, especially after the conclusion of the China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). The CMEC envisages to have Kyaukpyu deep sea water port ($1.3 billion) with two berths in its initial phase including Kyaukpyu SEZ ($2 billion); China-Myanmar oil and gas pipeline ($5 billion); Mandalay Yida Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone ($4billion); Tagaung Taung Nickel Industry Development Project ($820 million); Letpadaung copper mine project ($1 billion); Kunming-Kyaukpyu railway line; Mandalay-Tigyaing-Muse expressway and Kyaukpyu-Nay Pyi Taw highway projects etc.
In the same vein, in Bangladesh infrastructure projects over $10 billion are being executed; in Nepal, China is executing projects such as the building of Pokhara airport budgeted at $216 million, Melamchi Water Supply Project at $294.4 million, $3 billion Lumbini Project that will have an airport, hotels, convention centre, temples and a Buddhist university and a well connected highway. Recently during President Xi Jinping’s visit, both sides reached an agreement to connect Nepal with Tibet by rail. China’s investments in the region have been astronomical, amounting to $13.87 billion to Bangladesh, $3.11 billion to Sri Lanka, $1.34 billion to Nepal, $970 million to Maldives, and $12.9 billion to Pakistan. Besides, it has also increased its footprints in Maldives and Seychelles. In 2016, China started to construct its first ever naval base abroad in Djibouti.
Today, when China has emerged as the second largest economy in the world and the challenger to the established hegemon, to expect China to be indifferent to the smaller countries in the vicinity and beyond, as shown above would be a wishful thinking. As for smaller country, countries, to not benefit from the Chinese deep pockets, would equally be foolish and ignoring the ground realities. In the face of such challenges, what could be India’s options?
At the outset, India needs to unfold a workable connectivity strategy with our neighbourhood. New initiatives such as “Bharat Mala”, a network of 5,000 kilometres of roads connecting all the Himalayan states of India with a capital of $2.2 billion need to be carried out in letter and spirit and on a war footing. In the same vein, the “Sagar Mala” project, whereby all coastal cities in India would be interconnected through road, rail, ports and airports through a special development package need to be speeded up. Simultaneously, the nodes of these projects need to be extended to our immediate and extended neighbourhood and aligned with the SAGAR and IORA vision.
Secondly, India must strengthen its strategic and economic partnership with BIMSTEC and ASEAN countries. The RCEP is an opportunity to integrate Indian economy with the region. Meanwhile, strategic location of India’s northeast need to be utilised for building bridges with the region, without the development of northeast India, our Act East Policy will not reap much dividends. Rebuilding and reopening the Stillwell Road could be one of the options.
Thirdly, India needs to be magnanimous in its approach as far as resolving bilateral problems are concerned. The arm twisting by way of economic blockades in case of Nepal, and stopping of gas supplies to Bhutan will only harm our own national interests. Furthermore, India’s noncommittal approach needs to be changed for good, and whatever she commits needs to be delivered. For example, some of India’s projects in Nepal such as the Rs 33,108 crore Pancheshwar multi-purpose project on Mahakali river envisaged in the 1990s and revived during Narendra Modi’s Nepal visit in 2014 has not made much progress. A police academy promised to Nepal by India in the 1990s, revived by Prime Minister Modi in 2014, didn’t make progress either, The Chinese seized the opportunity and built a swanky academy at a cost of $350 million in a record two years’ time and gifted it for free to Nepal in June 2017.
Finally, as could be discerned from the above, it is the economy, stupid! In November 2017, during a two two-day Nepal Investment Summit, 89 companies from China committed an investment of $8.3 billion in various sectors, compared to an investment of $317 million committed by 21 Indian companies present at the summit. Even the Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan commitments far exceeded the Indian investment. Therefore, India needs to strengthen its economic drivers, build capacities in every field that will make it competitive and an attractive market not only for our neighbours but globally too. In this context, it is necessary for India to forge closer economic ties with China, benefit from its over capacities and deep pockets and lay the ground for a better economic flight. The option of 2+1 in the vicinity could be explored for viable joint projects. We must think beyond the security prism as far as trade, transport and tourism are concerned, and certainly should not take our cultural ties in the region for granted.