In geopolitical terms, South Asia has long functioned like an island, nominally attached to Eurasia but not really part of it. This geographic disconnect has also long limited China’s role and influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean.
But China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has the potential to fundamentally change this strategic calculus. The BRI includes the construction of new overland pathways to South Asia and maritime pathways across the Indian Ocean, connecting China with the Indian Ocean region. Its total projected cost: US $4 trillion.
The BRI in South Asia has three main parts: new connections between China’s Yunnan province and the Indian Ocean through Myanmar; the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that links Xinjiang province with the Indian Ocean; and the oceanic Maritime Silk Road linking the Indian Ocean with China’s Pacific coast.
Although primarily an economic initiative, BRI will have significant strategic implications for China and its role in the region. For one thing, it will give Beijing a much greater direct stake in the internal security of its Indian Ocean neighbours. Beijing’s historically warm relations with countries such as Pakistan and Myanmar has arisen partly because of its ‘virtual’ geographic remoteness. Longstanding policies of non-intervention may become more difficult to sustain.
Beijing has previously deployed security forces in Pakistan‐occupied Kashmir to protect Chinese workers on the Karakoram highway, and it could soon find itself engaged in domestic conflicts in Pakistan. China could also potentially become closely involved in Myanmar’s long-running civil conflicts if Chinese infrastructure was threatened.
In addition, economic development may not always deliver the security benefits assumed by Beijing. China argues that state-driven economic development would “[wean] the populace from fundamentalism.” But the historical experience of other developing countries in imposing ‘top down’ development as a means of addressing major security challenges has not necessarily always been positive.
Importantly, the new overland connections will potentially open up China’s landlocked provinces to new influences and even threats. The building of the Karakoram Highway to Pakistan in the 1970s facilitated the creation of new networks between Pakistani and Uighur traders and new communities of Chinese-origin Uighurs in Pakistan and the Gulf. Such linkages are now feeding back into separatist unrest in Xinjiang.
China will now be forced to grapple with the numerous problems that arise from much more direct and sustained physical connections with its neighbours – from illegal population movements and smuggling to protecting vulnerable Chinese owned infrastructure and its citizens. Importantly, Beijing will have strong interests in extending security to neighbouring Indian Ocean states, if and when security incidents occur.
Chinese investment can also be the source of real economic concerns, not least undeveloped local markets being swamped with cheap Chinese manufactures. A lack of transparency or consultation and perceived lack of benefits to local communities, including the use of imported Chinese workers, has led to public backlashes against projects in Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
The economics of many projects are also in some doubt. There is even growing talk of China creating ‘debt traps’ across the region. Sri Lanka’s recent decision to hand over control of Hambantota port to China in return for debt relief may only be the first of several such deals.
New Delhi is undoubtedly the most suspicious of the BRI. Indian security officials see new infrastructure on the Chinese side of the border as strengthening the PLA’s ability to invade India, and for similar reasons look suspiciously at proposals to build new overland connections from China to Myanmar.
The BRI’s maritime infrastructure projects are seen as facilitating the growing Chinese naval presence in the region and a potential threat to India’s aspirations to be the leading power in the Indian Ocean. The CPEC has only magnified fears that China is consolidating Pakistan’s hold on Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, building up Pakistan to become a greater threat to India, to say nothing about a potential direct Chinese military presence in Pakistan.
India’s decision to boycott China’s 2017 BRI Summit is a statement that India does not want to be seen as playing to Beijing’s regional tune.
The new overland routes to the Indian Ocean and new maritime way stations across the Indian Ocean promise to fundamentally alter China’s role in the region. Yet, just as it will likely generate reactions, especially from an increasingly wary India, the BRI may also have fundamental, and perhaps unforeseen, blowback on China itself.
This article was first published by Canada’s Macdonald-Laurier Institute.