Jabin Jacob on China’s Growing Influence in South Asia

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Jabin Jacob on China’s Growing Influence in South Asia

“Chinese influence has only encouraged instability in Nepalese politics.”

Jabin Jacob on China’s Growing Influence in South Asia

China’s Charge d’ Affaires in Colombo Hu Wei at a meeting with Buddhist monks of Siam Nikaya in Kandy Sri Lanka, January 11, 2023.

Credit: X/Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka

China’s footprint in South Asia has grown remarkably over the past decade. It has funded and implemented several infrastructure projects, many of them under the Belt and Road Initiative, in the region. Much has been written about mounting public wariness over Chinese projects due to unpaid debt leading to economic crises. However, China’s engagement of the people of South Asian countries has gone largely unnoticed.

A large number of South Asian youth are learning Mandarin and going to China for their higher studies. China offers hundreds of scholarships and fellowships to South Asian students and academics. On the religious front, too, Beijing has promoted Buddhist diplomacy and supported the travel of Sri Lankan Buddhist monks, for example, to Buddhist sites in China and even ancient ones in Pakistan.

In an interview with The Diplomat’s South Asia editor Sudha Ramachandran, China expert Jabin T. Jacob, who is an associate professor at the Shiv Nadar University in the Delhi National Capital Region, examined whether and how China’s increasing and deepening interaction with South Asia has influenced public perception of China and helped it further its national interests.

The most visible aspect of China’s growing presence in South Asian countries is its infrastructure-building activity. How do India and China compare with regard to the implementation of projects in South Asian countries?

The Chinese certainly have speed of response and implementation of infrastructure projects on their side. However, as the record shows, political leaders in South Asia do not always pick and choose wisely in terms of what infrastructure their countries need. Wasteful infrastructure spending in Sri Lanka and the Maldives are cases in point, and they have also led to increased debt burdens that have been passed down to successor governments.

In the case of Pakistan, power projects under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) have not really mitigated the country’s power crisis, which has structural reasons more to do with the internal political economy than any genuine lack of capacity before the Chinese came in. In other words, China responds to individual political leaders or regimes in order to curry favor and achieve its own foreign policy and security interests. It does not really assess the needs of host countries and peoples.

The fact that India does this is why Indian projects take time to get going from the planning stage to actual implementation. Having said that, the delays in Indian projects and a long-time insistence on reciprocity on matters of trade, among other things, are also why China got an opening in the first place. There has been some improvement on the Indian side — this can be considered a positive aspect of the Chinese ingress into South Asia — but it is fair to say that New Delhi could do better.

How has China’s rising role in infrastructure projects in South Asia influenced public perceptions here?

Where China is a new entrant and where the South Asian government in question is strong and stable, public perceptions are still perhaps somewhat positive. This is because there are limits to what China can do to steamroll or arm-twist government officials. Bangladesh, for example, has several times charged Chinese companies with corruption even as it has expanded cooperation.

In Pakistan, however, where China has had the freest hand in South Asia, public and elite perceptions have increasingly turned wary of China. They have realized that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has not been all that it was touted to be. Even the political and security elite seem more serious now about diversifying options away from China to countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

It might also be pointed out that in a case like Sri Lanka’s, arguments that China is not responsible for the island nation’s debt trap and that Sri Lanka’s problems on this front are of its own making, miss a fundamental point. It is Beijing’s support that has given multiple Sri Lankan governments the leeway to engage in reckless and unaccountable policymaking whose consequences we see today in Sri Lanka’s economic crisis. It is this encouragement that should be called the Chinese model of politics and development abroad. It is only a matter of time before the general population in various countries realize where the root cause of their troubles lies.

The Chinese government has built ties with the Communist parties in Nepal. What is the nature of these relations and how has it helped further Chinese interests in Nepal?

It is the Communist Party of China (CPC) that has built ties with the Communist parties in Nepal. While in practice, there is increasingly little to distinguish the Chinese government from the CPC, the distinction is nevertheless important. It is a branch of the CPC — the International Department — that is responsible for the CPC’s ties with other political parties, including communist parties, around the world. It is, therefore, not surprising that the CPC has built ties with the communist parties in Nepal.

What is of note is that the CPC is now confident enough in whatever it thinks is the Chinese model of development and politics — represented by Xi Jinping Thought — to now organize “training sessions” for political parties in other parts of the world. It is important to remember that this is happening not just in Nepal and not just with communist parties.

Have such links helped further Chinese interests in Nepal? I would argue that while it may appear so on the surface, the reality is that Chinese influence has only encouraged instability in Nepalese politics. This was what India was accused of in the past.

It should be clear that despite its rhetoric of “win-win” and “non-interference” in the internal affairs of other countries, China engages in other countries to counter its perceived rivals such as India and the United States, and that it follows pretty much the same template that it accuses other powers of following. What China does differently is that it is able to deploy its resources at multiple levels — through CPC departments, the government (the ministries, embassies), the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), its provinces and cities, and its state-owned and so-called private enterprises. There is a level of integration and “whole-of-the-system” approach that the Chinese are able to bring to bear that India is not yet capable of and which the Americans have simply not been able to grasp nor are capable of deploying themselves because of the very different kinds of political systems that we are talking about here.

A cultural event at the Confucius Institute in Kathmandu University, Kathmandu, Nepal, February 26, 2024. Facebook/Confucius Institute at Kathmandu University

What role have the Confucius Institutes played in Chinese soft power diplomacy in South Asia?

In India, Confucius Institutes have been under the scanner of the Indian government long before Western governments and universities realized that these organizations were carrying out propaganda for the Chinese party-state as well as involved in suppressing free speech. Indians, of course, have been far less susceptible than Westerners to Chinese propaganda given the history of India-China ties, affected as they were by the 1962 conflict.

And with the Galwan clash in eastern Ladakh in 2020, a new generation of Indians has been sensitized to problems in the bilateral relationship and increasingly view China negatively. Overall, despite the initial hype, it is hard to state conclusively that Confucius Institutes have really managed to push Chinese soft power in South Asia in any significant way. South Asians are simply more oriented towards the West in terms of language, and educational and professional opportunities, than they are towards China.

Beijing has provided scholarships to Nepali students to study in China. How has this worked to shape Nepali perceptions of China?

In the CSEP report, “How China Engages South Asia: Themes, Partners and Tools,” Akhilesh Upadhyay has a chapter on this particular question asking if Nepali students in China are a source of soft power for Beijing. He notes that while China is a cheaper overseas study destination and offers several scholarships, it also does not provide residency easily for work and even when they find work, Nepalis are seldom able to find well-paying jobs in China. Consequently, most Nepali students simply look at China as a waystation.

Among other things, Upadhyay also notes that China’s strict “zero COVID” policy dented its positive image as an educational destination. This, incidentally, is true not just in Nepal but also in many countries around the world where students struggled to return or could not return at all to China to complete their studies.

India and China have drawn on Buddhism in their soft power outreach in Sri Lanka. What are their respective strategies and how successful have they been?

The advantage the Chinese enjoy in soft power outreach is the huge amount of resources they can bring to bear in their efforts. They are also far more consistent with their efforts than India has been. As Chulanee Attanayake has detailed in her chapter on China’s Buddhist diplomacy in Sri Lanka in the CSEP study, “How China Engages South Asia,” Chinese efforts have picked up since CPC General Secretary and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Sri Lanka in September 2014 with a growth in the number of visits of Sri Lankan Buddhist monks to China and support for Buddhist organizations based in Sri Lanka. This support has included funding charity and assistance for several public service projects.

China has launched a number of organizations as a way of solidifying its claim of leadership over the global Buddhist movement and even facilitated visits of Sri Lankan monks to ancient Buddhist sites in Pakistan. The attempt, of course, is to undermine Indian influence and to ensure that the Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, does not receive a platform in other countries.

What underlies China’s mounting presence and public popularity in the Maldives?

China exercises a degree of influence in sections of the political class in the Maldives, no doubt, but that is not the same as saying it enjoys public popularity. If it does, it is because of the above-mentioned factors. In any case, this popularity has not been enough to ensure that pro-Chinese governments have stayed continuously in power or for Maldivian leaders even in such dispensations to not realize that geography dictates India is their immediate source of succor in a crisis, not China.

India shares more cultural and social bonds with South Asian countries than China does. Yet there is greater anti-India sentiment in the region than anti-China sentiment. Why?

This is a simple one to answer. South Asians know and understand India better than they do China. So, the expectations of India are naturally higher. Expectations of good and fair behavior are greater of India than China, and when India disappoints the reactions are equally severe. As countries in South Asia become more familiar with China and the Chinese, anti-China sentiment too will grow.

Even in Pakistan, concerns about China have grown. Pakistani entrepreneurs have objected to preferential treatment for Chinese companies under CPEC. Pakistan has also actually suffered losses under its FTA with China. Chinese bad behavior, including mistreatment of local workers in various parts of the world, is, by now, pretty well-known. South Asia is no exception, with frequent complaints in Pakistan, and Chinese workers even getting killed in Bangladesh.

Overall, I would argue that anti-India sentiment is a reality that Indian diplomats have managed to deal with. South Asian leaders might use this sentiment to political ends, but they also realize the dangers of carrying it too far. With anti-China sentiment, on the other hand, while there is perhaps not much political capital to be had out of it currently in South Asia, this also means it will be harder to fix or erase once it picks up steam.

In fact, China’s aggressive foreign policy — its “wolf warrior” diplomacy, pressurizing countries to pick sides against the U.S. or India, and its tendency to use economic coercion to achieve its goals — has aggravated anti-China sentiment worldwide. This will eventually happen in South Asia, too.