Author: Li Qingyan, research fellow of Institute of International Strategy, China Institute of International Studies
Source: The first issue of World Affairs*, 2016 (*World Affairs is a bimonthly magazine published by World Affairs Publishing House, sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China. Also translated as “World Knowledge Journal”.)
The situation of South Asia was generally stable in 2015, but I cannot define it as “optimistic”. The problems may lie in the turbulences of internal affairs of South Asian countries, and their diplomatic relationships; the tightening situation of regional security, and the slackening regional economy hampered by multi-faceted factors. The new trends in South Asia provide China with new opportunities to establish cooperative ties with countries in this region, and also add up to China’s pressure to map her strategies here.
1.各国内政震荡 1. The turbulences of internal affairs
Several controversies have raised their head in Indian society since Modi was swore in as Prime Minister more than one year ago. Meanwhile, hinderances and difficulties are also becoming overwhelming for the Indian government to deal with administrative affairs.
For one thing, the reform plans of Modi suffer a major setback owing to the oppositions from various aspects. The Indian government has submitted several key bills – notably GST (goods and services tax bill) and land acquisition bill – to the Indian Parliament, so as to cure the lingering ailments in India’s taxation systems and land policies, and to clear hurdles for attracting investment, infrastructure facilities, and advancement of manufacturing.
However, the bills were strongly opposed not only by the Indian National Congress, but also by Trinamool Congress and the Left Front. The opposition parties were later joined by several allies of BJP, including Shiva Seva and Akali Dal.
For another thing, the efforts of Modi and his government were handicapped by failures in local elections. After a major defeat in Delhi Legislative Assembly election in February of 2015, BJP suffered another setback in Bihar – an important state in the north of India. It is clear that Modi has lost his charm after the “honey moon” of the new Prime Minister and new ruling party is gone, and the opposition will grow even more evident in the rest part of Modi’s tenure.
To make things worse, problems within the BJP have been aggravating in recent years. The visa fraud and examination fraud reflect the corruption problems inside the party caused by lack of checks and balances. Meanwhile, the cohesive force of BJP is reduced sharply by the conflicts between different factions inside the party.
Not to mention the fact that Modi’s reform policies are not well understood and recognized by the underprivileged Indian population. Millions of Indian workers joined the recent general strikes in protest of Modi’s economic policies, which obviously advocate business development. It is now impossible to resolve the accumulated contradictions of the Indian society.
In Pakistan, the ruling government of Nawaz Sharif – the incumbent Prime Minister – is restricted by the military and the opposition parties. While terrorist attacks continue, the security situation inside Pakistan is turning for the better; however, millions of ordinary Pakistanis are forced to leave their homes, and the northwestern region is still troubled by turbulence.
In Nepal, a new Constitution was finally passed in September 2015, after a prolonged preparation of 7 years. However, the new Constitution aroused resentment amongst the Madhesi people in the administrative division of Terai. The racial problems continued to brew in India, and domestic confrontations were escalated.
India was intending to intervene in the regional politics with unprecedented intensities, and even imposed an “unofficial embargo” on Nepal, which was immediately trapped in an extremely difficult situation both politically and economically.
Sri Lanka witnesses a shift of ruling parties at the beginning of 2015, and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which is close to India, immediately halted the harbor project in Colombo, in which Chinese companies had invested. The Tamil people started to gain ground with the support of India, and their contradictions with the Sinhalese people (the majority group in Sri Lanka) grew even fiercer.
In Afghanistan, the two political forces represented by Ashraf Ghani (the President) and Abdullah Abdullah (the Chief Executive Officer) struggled overtly and covertly, and the administrative capacities of central and local governments went down to extremely low levels. The divergences of both sides are huge — over a series of key issues like Constitutional amendments and election system — and the future of the coalition government is uncertain.
In Maldives, the country was in a state of emergency after a series of political turbulences, including the trial of Mohamed Nasheed, the former President, and the attempt assassination of Abdulla Yameen, the incumbent President.
2.各国经济社会发展参差不齐 2.The uneven economic and social development of each country
South Asia boasts the fastest economic development among all regions in the world. Thanks to the remarkable performance of the Indian economy, the economic growth rate in South Asia rose to 7.1% in 2015. However, the problem of uneven development became even more serious for different countries in this region.
The estimated economic growth rate of India is expected to hit 7.5% in 2016. But Modi and the Indian government have made no notable breakthroughs with reform of the laws of labor, taxation and land requisition, and India’s domestic business environment (which ranks around 130th worldwide) calls for giant improvement.
With the help of “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor”, Pakistan is strengthening her efforts for investment in infrastructure facility constructions, and the prospect of economic growth and national construction is turning for the better. Standard & Poor, an American financial services company, elevates the forecast of Pakistani economic growth in 2017 from 3.8% to 4.6%, and upgrades other forecasts from “stable” to “positive”.
However, it might take a long period for the Pakistani economy to take off, as the country is troubled by power shortage and structural contradictions. To make things worse, reform plans of the Pakistani government are hindered by security problems and natural disasters (especially earthquakes). On the other hand, the national economy of Afghanistan keeps deteriorating, and is on the verge of bankruptcy with a sharp reduction of foreign aid and a shortage of national finance.
Nepal suffered great losses in the earthquake of April 25th, 2015, and the recovery process of economic and social foundations proved extremely arduous. In September of 2015, the transport corridor along the border of Nepal and India was blocked, and Nepal suffered a serious shortage of necessities for life and production, like fuel oil and medicines. The national economy of Nepal is now on the verge of a breakdown.
In Sri Lanka, nearly all FDI projects were halted by the government, and the confidence of foreign investors slumped accordingly. Therefore, Sri Lanka soon suffered from breaks in fund flows and also from prominent foreign debts, and the era of financial crisis came again.
3.各国间关系波动、受挫 3.The fluctuations and setbacks of bilateral relationships
After Modi took office, he is giving top priority to India’s neighbouring countries in his foreign policies. India has established close ties with Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh, but her wild ambition is too big to be concealed, and the neighbours soon become irritated with India’s bullying behaviour.
Claiming that the new Constitution of Nepal failed to represent the interests of the Madhesi people, who live in the south of Nepal, India started to interfere in the domestic affairs of Nepal by imposing an embargo. The protests went beyond control in Nepal, and the pro-India government was finally overthrown. Hence, India-Nepal relationship arrived at another “freezing point” after India initiated an economic blockade in Nepal in 1989.
The warming of India-Pakistan relationship proved to be a flash in the pan. The two countries had frequent military confrontations along the actual control line of Kashmir, and India started a “Cold Start” strategy towards Pakistan. The high-level dialogues were suspended.
India is dissatisfied with the fact that Afghanistan tilts toward Pakistan on a series of issues concerning strategic security, and refuses to sponsor a new conference of India-Afghanistan strategic partnership. Furthermore, India also threats to abandon the iron mine project in Hajigak. Bilateral (relations) between India and Afghanistan continue to deteriorate. India also influences the political arrangements of Bhutan and Maldives by cutting off water, oil and electricity power supplies. The two “small countries” have no choice but to swallow the bitterness.
India also interfered in the domestic affairs of Sri Lank in name of the Tamil issues. On the other hand, Bangladesh remained sckeptical of India’s foreign policies towards neighbouring countries, in fear that the sovereignty and independence of the country might be threatened by India through trade and economic corridors.
Besides, the pro-Pakistan policies of Ashraf Ghani and the Afghan government proved not so effective as expected. The domestic security situation grew worse in Afghanistan, and the voices of criticism for Pakistan became louder in Pakistan. President Ghani was disappointed with the moves of Pakistan, and the promise of reconciliation met with major setbacks.
4.安全形势更趋复杂严峻 4.Grave situation for regional security
The “Strike of the Sword” action carried out by Pakistani army did function well to combat the terrorists, but those who escaped fled into Afghanistan territory, and conducted frequent attacks with Afghanistan as the new headquarters.
In July 2015, the Afghan government and Taliban had the first ever peaceful talk in Murree, Pakistan. But after the death of Omar, Taliban were occupied with their internal divisions, and the peaceful talks were shelved temporarily. Mansour, the new paramount leader of Taliban in Afghanistan, had not yet acquired real power, and had to escalate attacks in order to bring the warring factions closer, expand his influence and consolidate his authority. As a result, domestic armed conflicts also escalated correspondingly.
The future of the peaceful talks is uncertain now, and it is virtually impossible to achieve substantial progress in the short term. With hard liners sabotaging the process of the peace talks by all possible means, the Afghan Taliban wants to demand even more in the talks, and there will be even more challenges in the road ahead.
Meanwhile, terrorist forces like ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and IMU (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) find opportunities to invade, accelerate the pace of infiltration the South Asian region, and strike deep roots in Afghanistan. ISIS has employed tough lines of different factions with its extremist ideology, and the Pakistan Taliban has sworn allegiance and pledged eternal loyalty to ISIS. The different extremist groups in South Asia start multiple terrorist attacks in order to demonstrate their military strength, and regional security is again under serious threat.
5.中国在南亚的外交运筹 5.China’s diplomatic strategy in South Asia
India is dreaming of consolidating her dominance in South Asia, so as to block China’s path to the Indian Ocean. In a word, India is trying to play the double roles of “supervisor” and “supplier” simultaneously.
US, Russia, Saudi Arab, Iran and Turkey continue to map their respective strategic plans in Afghanistan. US launched the plan of “New Silk Road” in the beginning of 2015, aiming to connect countries in Middle Asia and South Asia with Afghanistan as the center. On the other hand, Russia and other Middle Asian countries expressed their concerns about “terrorist overflow” from Afghanistan.
Japan is carrying on with her “dollar diplomacy”, and tries to cast ever greater influence in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Most South Asian countries are close neighbours of China, which considers South Asia to be a key zone for the grand plan of “One Belt, One Road” proposed by it. The all-weather strategic partnership between China and Pakistan now serves as a major strategic support for China in South Asia, and India is trying to contain China’s influence here with her “overlord moves”.
On the other hand, the small countries in South Asia have become even more sckeptical of India’s claim of “rising with responsibility”. In view of the delicate situation, China is supposed to establish close ties with these small countries, while strengthening her all-round pragmatic cooperation with Pakistan. By deepening the commitment in infrastructure facility construction, China is likely to explore further space of diplomatic manoeuvers, and to strengthen regional security cooperation.
A healthy bilateral relationship between China and India is beneficial to regional peace and stability along the border of two countries. Priority is also given to economic and commercial ties, and India is supposed to facilitate the application process of visa and to relax the restrictions of FDI. Modi met with huge hindrances to his reform plans in 2015, and is now in urgent need of foreign capital to boost India’s national economy. India has enormous interest in investments from China, and has taken active measures to bring down the barriers of China-India economic cooperation.
It is clear that India will turn a cold face to China’s proposal of “One Belt, One Road”. On the other hand, India should make some serious reflection on her relationship with other South Asian countries, and figure out how to restore her dominant role here, so as to balance China’s rising impact in this region. China can take the post-earthquake reconstruction in Nepal as the point of penetration, and explore the new cooperative method of “China, India +1” in some construction projects involving a third party.
The “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor”, as a new measure to deepen China-Pakistan relationship, is already in the process of implementation, and the related projects are going quite smoothly indeed.
However, problems and challenges are gaining ground, and China and Pakistan must keep frequent contact and cooperation, so as to avoid adverse impact of partisan conflicts and contradictions between the government and the army. Meanwhile, China needs to monitor the popular will and media reports in Pakistan, and follow up with her “soft power”.
Besides, China will continue to strengthen her relationship between Nepal and Bangladesh, and try to mend her relationship with Sri Lanka. Towards the end of last year, Nepal suffered a crisis after India cut off oil and gas supplies, and had to resort to China for help. China reacted promptly to Nepal’s request, and provided fuel aid immediately to Nepal. After then, China normalized China-Nepal bilateral trade of oil products, strengthened their mutual efforts in joint construction projects, and upgraded the highways connecting the border ports of both countries.
Bangladesh is deeply concerned about China’s preferential policies in trade, tariff and loan interest, etc. China is supposed to give positive responses on the basis of mutual benefit and win-win situation. Sri Lanka is recently going through serious financial crisis, and is in urgent need of foreign capital. Although India, US and Japan used to promise Sri Lanka investments, no concrete actions have been taken actually.
The new government of Sri Lanka is recently reflecting on its prior unfriendly policies towards China, and is intending to mend the bilateral relationship. China must keep in regular touch with Sri Lanka, so as to restart the harbor city projects, which were halted in 2015.
China will also take disaster relief assistance as a new channel of diplomacy. Nepal, Afghanistan and Pakistan have no adequate experiences and capacities of coping with secondary disasters, settlements of the victims, disease prevention and control, etc. They’ll surely face grave challenges in case of serious natural disasters.
As their close neighbour, China is supposed to showcase her image as a responsible superpower, with pragmatic neighbouring diplomatic policies of “kindness, candor, benefit and tolerance”, and to take proactive measures to offer substantial assistance to the disaster-stricken countries, setting an example for the international community and calling upon more rescue efforts.
China has exerted “demonstration effect” on the small countries in South Asia with a combination of emergency aid measures and after-disaster reconstructions, thus altering the traditional power structure in South Asia.
Chances also lie in cooperation of anti-terrorist efforts. Their common enemies include Taliban forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Al-Qaeda, ISIS, IMU, ETIM (East Turkestan Islamic Movement), etc. Sometimes things get more complicated as different organizations will join together as a more powerful force. They’re posing serious threat to “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor” and “Silk Road Economic Belt”, etc.
China is supposed to keep active communications with US, Russia, Iran, India and other party concerned, and to strengthen the cooperation with Pakistan and Afghanistan to ensure regional security. Besides, it’s also part of China’s obligation to help to strengthen the anti-terrorist capacities for the countries concerned, to strength regional cooperation of anti-terrorist efforts, and to ensure the security of China’s western frontier.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of World Affaris.