OPINION: China’s changing strategies

KATHMANDU (The Kathmandu Post/ANN) - Nepal is neither the first nor exclusive to the pro-Beijing drift of South Asian countries.

Last Monday, India declined China’s invitation to attend its Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation to be held in Beijing on April 25 for the second time. So, while the forum will be hosting delegations from more than 100 countries, including 40 heads of state or government and chiefs of several international and regional organisations, India will again be conspicuous by its absence.

India’s choices remain circumscribed by the fact that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor—the flagship project of the Belt and Road Initiative—not only violates India’s sovereignty with its projects running across Pakistani-occupied Kashmir, but Beijing now calls this disputed territory ‘Pakistan’ without explaining the why and how of this policy shift. While the ‘all weather’ China-Pakistan axis is understandable, what is worth ruminating is China’s evolving strategies that together seek to engage both India and also its immediate neighbouring countries.

Ending India’s monopoly

Most South Asian states have already signed up for the Belt and Road Initiative and are sending high-level delegations to the Second Belt and Road Forum. They include the prime minister of Pakistan and the Nepali delegation to be led by President Bidya Devi Bhandari who will address the forum and oversee the signing of the long-awaited Nepal-China Transit Transport Agreement, thus ending India’s enduring monopoly in providing Nepal access to the sea.

More than that, their bilateral parleys may see the two sides further brainstorming the China-Nepal-India economic corridor that was proposed by China last April. Indeed, just like the China-Myanmar economic corridor—that was launched last December thus sidelining the longstanding Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar economic corridor—China may propose a Nepal-China economic corridor leaving India vacillating. Kathmandu’s response to such solicitation will have to keep the larger picture in the reckoning.

No doubt, Nepal is neither the first nor exclusive to this pro-Beijing drift of South Asian countries. This trend had showcased itself at China’s inaugural Belt and Road Forum in May 2017. Compared to India choosing to absent itself, South Asia was represented by the prime ministers of Pakistan and Sri Lanka while the delegations from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and the Maldives were led by senior ministers. As regards Nepal, after prolonged vacillation over how New Delhi would react to it, the Prachanda government signed up for partnership in the Belt and Road Initiative at the very last hour and then sent a high-powered delegation led by then deputy prime minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara.

Following the legislative elections of November 2017—that brought Prachanda and KP Oli to power—foreign minister Pradeep Gyawali’s debut China visit in April 2018 saw his counterpart Wang Yi speak of  ‘expediting past agreements, developing a trans-Himalayan multi-dimensional transport network and building a China-Nepal-India economic corridor’. A few days later, the same proposal was made to the Indian foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, who was visiting Beijing in preparation for the June 4 Qingdao Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit. While Nepal remains lukewarm, yet positively inclined, to this proposal,  New Delhi has so far kept a studied silence. India feels concerned about what free access for China in Nepal means for the special nature of India-Nepal relations that include porous borders and almost equal rights for large numbers of Nepalis in India, and above all, for the 40,000 Nepalis serving in seven regiments of the Gurkha Rifles in the India Army, plus their 90,000 pensioners in Nepal.

What also needs to be closely scrutinised is how China continues to develop innovative ways to engage New Delhi, which enjoys a stronger economic engagement with Beijing than the rest of South Asia combined. Their trade reached $95 billion for 2018 and, without celebrating it, India remains on board in several components of the Belt and Road Initiative. It is important to underline that in his April 2018 joint press meet with Pradeep Gyawali, Wang Yi had also shifted the onus to Beijing and New Delhi, saying, “As two major emerging economies, China and India shall deliver the benefits to their neighbours, Nepal included, in their own development.”

Exploring joint ventures

This new proposition for promoting the Belt and Road Initiative through sub-sets of direct and equal partnership with major Asian economies like India and Japan that have remained skeptical of the Belt and Road Initiative was to bloom two weeks later into Xi Jinping’s ‘two-plus-one’ model that was presented to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at their informal Wuhan summit. The same model was later proposed to and accepted by Japan’s Shinzo Abe. In October last year, India and China successfully implemented their first joint programme for training Afghan diplomats, and both sides have since been talking about exploring joint ventures in other South Asian countries. Nepal could be their next destination with or without the China-Nepal-India economic corridor in-the-making.

But China’s new strategy of creating sub-sets within multilateral economic corridors of the Belt and Road Initiative has also been influenced by Yang Jiechi’s ‘early harvest’ thesis. This has promoted a new phrase ‘China speed’ that pits India’s usual engagements against China’s high-speed mega projects making India look uninspiring. No doubt, India’s neighbours have finally found a serious alternative to New Delhi. Xi Jinping has already paid visits to India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Maldives, and his next visit may soon be to Kathmandu, creating expectations for an early clinch. Nevertheless, both India and its neighbours must do a multiple, long-term cost-and-benefit analysis before plunging into, either fully or partially, engaging or negating, the Belt and Road Initiative.

(Singh is a professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)

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  • Opinion: China’s changing strategies

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