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EFSAS Commentary

China’s rushed and ill-considered forays into South Asia have run into strong head winds


Buoyed by its overflowing cash reserves and tempted by the economic opportunities that it smelt in the ill-managed and precariously placed economies of several South Asian countries, most notably Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, in the past decade China had embarked upon a massive economic expansion in the region. The more pronounced Chinese presence in South Asia had also carried with it the unmistakable undertones of strategic and political interests, especially in the smaller countries such as Nepal and the Maldives. The last few years, however, have witnessed the exposure of the real Chinese designs, and Beijing’s aggressive moves have come up against push-backs of varying natures and degrees across the region, something it had not anticipated but were inevitable considering how ill-prepared and opportunistic the dragon’s South Asian overtures were. For a start, the extent and depth of the Chinese understanding of the South Asian psyche was surprisingly shallow for a huge, prosperous nation that aspires for world leadership some day.

That the euphoria of the early days of easy Chinese money and few questions and demands was replaced not too long thereafter by fears of encroachment upon the sovereignty of small, indebted nations says a lot about how the Chinese incursion into South Asia played out, and how it gradually came to be perceived. Heavily indebted Sri Lanka was compelled by China to lease out national assets to it for a whole century, bringing back memories of the dark long-gone heydays of colonialism. The Maldives, under the controversial former President Abdulla Yameen, came under similar Chinese pressure as Sri Lanka. On the other hand, Pakistan, whose outspoken sovereign position it has always been to speak out against atrocities, both real and perceived, against Muslims anywhere in the world, has not only remained absolutely silent on the well documented Chinese excesses against the Muslim Uyghurs, but has gone to the extent of suggesting that China was treating the Uyghurs very well. Since it was essentially Pakistan’s ‘all weather friendship’ with China coupled with the huge amounts of Chinese money that was being pumped into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that had caused Pakistan to sell out its fellow Muslim Uyghur brothers and sisters, and with it conscribe Pakistan’s sovereign position to the pages of history, some Pakistani experts have questioned whether Pakistan any longer had the authority to take national and strategic decisions without first obtaining Beijing’s nod.

The situation in Sri Lanka, which has been a particular focus of Chinese political attention and infrastructure investments as Beijing seeks to gain a foothold in the Indian Ocean, has turned sharply for the worse for China as mass protests against the dire economic situation that the Chinese debt trap has contributed significantly to are being organized on a near-daily basis. The influential Rajapaksa family that is most closely associated with China is bearing the brunt of the criticism, and calls for the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his Prime Minister brother Mahinda Rajapaksa abound. As calls for Sri Lanka to engage with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to seek a bailout rather than expose itself to greater risks by further sinking into the Chinese debt trap are being raised, all China seems to be willing to offer embattled Colombo is more loans simply to service existing Chinese loans. As a Bloomberg News report of 22 April informed, Sri Lanka’s top diplomat in Beijing, Palitha Kohona, said that day that as Sri Lanka readied itself to deal with an unprecedented challenge, including by approaching the IMF, he was confident that China would come through on $2.5 billion in financial support as he had received reassurances from authorities in China that arrangements for loans and credit lines were progressing. That certainly sounded like well meaning, positive news for Sri Lanka until Kohona went on to the fine print. He revealed that the proposed $2.5 billion in Chinese financial support comprised a further loan of $1 billion from Beijing only to enable Sri Lanka to repay existing Chinese loans that are due in July, and a $1.5 billion credit line to purchase goods such as textiles from China that were needed to support Sri Lanka’s apparel export industry. In short, the entire quantum of “financial support” that Beijing intended to provide the crisis-stricken Sri Lanka would be funneled straight back to China.

It is little wonder that Sri Lankan experts are advocating major course correction after moving far too close to China. George Cooke, founder of the Colombo-based think-tank Awarelogue Initiative, noted that “We have seen a lot of silence on China's part... India has meanwhile been offering proactive help”. Umesh Moramudali who researches Sri Lanka’s public debt dynamics at the University of Colombo, meanwhile, pointed out that “There is a clear shift in China's approach to Sri Lanka, in that it pledged assistance but waited for Sri Lanka to have a clear debt restructuring plan”. Rohan Gunaratna, director-general of the government-aligned think tank Sri Lankan Institute of National Security Studies said at a symposium in Colombo recently that “Sri Lanka’s strategic pendulum is shifting away from China towards India and the United States (US)”. Reflecting on the crisis that has engulfed Sri Lanka, a recent report in the Hong Kong Post observed that “The key concern, however, is how such a negative situation would impact the attitude of Colombo towards borrowings from China, and what it would mean for the ultimate relation between China and Sri Lanka. There is concern that the experience of Sri Lanka is prompting countries like Myanmar, Malaysia and Nepal to suspend Chinese investment projects”.

Commenting on the neighbouring islands of the Maldives, C. Raja Mohan, senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, in a column in Foreign Policy on 6 April wrote,  “In the Maldives, the strategic archipelago where Beijing has been working to get a foothold, the battle to push back against China has already been won. Since his election in 2018, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, president of the Maldives, has reversed the policies of his predecessor, Abdulla Yameen, who moved the Maldives decisively toward China by allowing Chinese warships to dock, blocking Indian projects, and rushing a bilateral free trade agreement through parliament”. Raja Mohan also believes that “The pendulum swing to India and the United States is also visible in Nepal, whose prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, just concluded a visit to India. Opposition to India and the United States has been an enduring ideological principle for the various communist parties that have dominated Nepal’s political landscape in the last decade. Deuba’s party, the centrist Nepali Congress, has tended to be in favor of stronger ties with India. He may not be able to reverse many of the domestic legacies of communist rule, but he is certainly reorienting Nepal’s international relations”.

Pakistan, too, has been reeling under a prolonged economic crisis for the past several years, during which time it has had to knock on all possible doors for handouts and bailouts. Pakistan’s woes have come at a time when the CPEC, the flagship project of China’s contentious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has not yet delivered on its tall promises of raining Yuans upon Pakistanis. While protests against the CPEC have been taking place periodically in Pakistan, amidst media headlines such as ‘Anti-China chorus grows in Pakistan: CPEC irks Pakistani separatist groups’, local anger against the mega project has in recent times taken a more ominous and disagreeable turn.

On the evening of 26 April, three Chinese nationals, all teachers at the University of Karachi's Confucius Institute, and the driver of the van they were travelling in, were killed in a suicide bombing near the Chinese language learning center. A fourth Chinese teacher was injured in the blast. CCTV footage shared by the police showed a woman clad in a Burkha detonating herself outside the gates of the Confucius Institute. The Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), a separatist militant group, claimed responsibility for the attack and confirmed that it had been carried out by a woman suicide bomber. The BLA released a statement in which it said the Confucius Institute was targeted because it was a “symbol of Chinese economic, cultural and political expansionism”.

A shocked and enraged Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed “strong condemnation and indignation” over the attack and demanded that Pakistan investigate it thoroughly, punish those responsible, ensure the safety of Chinese citizens, and prevent such incidents from happening again. The ministry added in a statement that “The blood of the Chinese people should not be shed in vain, and those behind this incident will surely pay the price”.

There have been several terrorist attacks targeting Chinese nationals and Chinese interests in Pakistan in recent years. Some of these have been carried out by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), but a majority were claimed by the BLA. Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest but least populated province is critical to the CPEC. The province and its deep-water port in Gwadar are major links in China’s Belt and Road network of infrastructure and energy projects stretching to the Middle East and beyond. The BLA opposes what it sees as Islamabad’s exploitation, with active Chinese support, of Balochistan's mineral resources, and claims that the Baloch people receive little from their own resources. As Al Jazeera pointed out, “Chinese nationals and business and investment interests have regularly been targeted by separatists in Balochistan, where Beijing is involved in lucrative mining and energy projects. Baloch separatist fighters have been fighting for a greater share of their province’s natural resources for decades, mostly focusing attacks on natural gas projects, infrastructure and the security forces”.

Last year, 13 people, including 9 Chinese nationals, were killed in an explosion that hit a bus convoy carrying Chinese engineers to a hydro-power plant construction site in northern Pakistan. The attack frayed relations between Islamabad and Beijing, and Pakistan later paid millions in compensation to the families of the Chinese workers killed. Islamabad blamed the TTP for that attack. Earlier, in April 2021, a suicide bomb attack at a luxury hotel hosting the Chinese Ambassador in Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan, killed four and wounded dozens. The Ambassador was unhurt in that attack, which was claimed by the TTP. In 2020, at least five people died when the Pakistan Stock Exchange in Karachi was targeted in an attack claimed by the BLA, which described its actions as “retaliation” against “Chinese exploitative plans in Balochistan”. In 2018, the BLA claimed another attack in which gunmen tried to storm the Chinese Consulate in Karachi, killing four people. The BLA said at that time that it would not tolerate any Chinese expansionist endeavors.

The threat of suicide attacks by the BLA and the TTP has become a major worry for Pakistan as it tries to reassure China that it was doing everything it could to protect Chinese projects and personnel. The BLA’s warning after the 26 April Karachi suicide attack of more violent attacks on Chinese targets in the future would have been taken serious note of by the Pakistani security apparatus, as also by Beijing. Al Jazeera reported that BLA spokesman Jeeyand Baloch had claimed in a statement that “Hundreds of highly trained male and female members of the Baloch Liberation Army’s Majeed Brigade are ready to carry out deadly attacks in any part of Balochistan and Pakistan”. He threatened Beijing with “even harsher” attacks unless China halts “exploitation projects” and “occupying of the Pakistani State”.

As China comes up against messy push-backs of varying nature all over South Asia, Raja Mohan summed up the broad milieu that China finds itself in the midst of today aptly. He wrote, “Just a couple of years ago, it looked like China was an irresistible force in the subcontinent. Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative — which has sent a flood of Chinese cash to countries in the region — was widely hailed as a game-changer. But the United States and India are now pushing back. Although Beijing will remain a powerful actor in the subcontinent, New Delhi and Washington have been regaining ground”.

As China licks its paws with concern while the situation turns bitter for it across South Asia, it may well be pondering whether plunging head first into a region where it only had ravenous self interests to drive it, and no natural moorings to anchor to, was either wise or worth it.