China needs to strategically reconsider its calculations in South Asia amidst the ongoing shift in the region.
At a time when Pakistan’s economic challenges have already posed a serious roadblock in advancing the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor— a project that even the Chinese are quite unsure about—the rising number of terrorist attacks against Chinese projects and personnel in Pakistan has also become a major concern. The recent attack on the Chinese teachers of the Confucius Institute at the University of Karachi by the Baluchistan separatist organisation on 26 April, which followed the attack on the Chinese embassy in November 2018, the Gwadar Port Hotel in 2019, and the attack on a Chinese worker’s bus at the Gwadar Port in August 2021, caused quite a furore in China. Chinese strategists have not only publicly condemned the deteriorating public security situation in Pakistan, but their discussions also brought out the dilemma that China currently faces about the security of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor. If Pakistan sets up a special police force to provide protection to the construction of the CPEC and ensure the safety of Chinese workers, it not only increases the economic burden on both the countries but also completely isolates the Chinese community in Pakistan. On the other hand, if they seek to reach out to the local population, unarmed Chinese citizens become easy targets of various terrorist forces, who want to create a global sensation and pressurise the Pakistani government to meet their demands. Meanwhile, such incidents effectively reduce the Chinese people/businesses’ willingness to invest in Pakistan, adversely impacting the people-to-people ties between the two countries and jeopardising the tempo of China’s CPEC. There has been a raging debate in China on the same. Some Chinese strategists believe that rather than relying solely on the Pakistani government, China should explore new ways to ensure the safety of Chinese projects and personnel in Pakistan, particularly through carrying out cross-border counterterrorism operations. However, the counter-opinion is that the Chinese military must not enter Pakistan at any cost, which will further complicate China–Pakistan relations with unforeseeable consequences. Rather it should empower and entrust Pakistan’s military and police to rein in the terrorist forces and, prioritise regional cooperation, in addition to cooperation with Pakistan.
Chinese strategists have not only publicly condemned the deteriorating public security situation in Pakistan, but their discussions also brought out the dilemma that China currently faces about the security of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor.
Therefore, forming an inseparable economic and strategic linkage between the two South Asian neighbours and developing political mutual trust, reconciliation, and mutual policy coordination between the two is the topmost priority of China’s South Asia strategy under current circumstances<2>. Chinese strategists believe that it is only when there is a solid Af-Pak collaboration that China can pursue its interests in the region such as maintaining the security of its western frontier, advancing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), conducting checks on various anti-China forces such as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, and al-Qaeda, improving China’s ties and image in the Muslim world, amongst others. On the contrary, they warn that the deterioration of the Pakistan–Afghanistan and the possible collaboration between India and Afghanistan can put Pakistan in a tough spot, threatening its national unity, its survival as a nation, and its value to China as a key balancer to India in the region<3>. China’s recently conducted Spring Diplomacy in South Asia—marked by its visits to Pakistan, and Afghanistan and its attendance in the OIC Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Islamabad; the Third Foreign Ministers' Meeting on the Afghan Issue Among the Neighboring Countries of Afghanistan; the first Neighboring Countries of Afghanistan Plus Afghanistan Foreign Ministers' Dialogue in Tunxi, Anhui Province—were essentially aimed at strengthening Pakistan’s influence and control, and in turn, China’s influence and control over the ruling dispensation in Kabul through Pakistan. However, the recent developments in Pakistan–Afghanistan ties are far from gratifying for the Chinese side. After a brief honeymoon period, Pakistan has now been accusing Kabul of failing to rein in Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters and stopping cross-border attacks on its security personnel. On the other hand, the Taliban has been accusing Pakistan of carrying out cross-border military raids inside Afghanistan, causing a large number of civilian casualties. China sees these developments as a serious blow to the Beijing-proposed China–Pakistan–Afghanistan cooperation model in South Asia.
Some Chinese strategists believe that rather than relying solely on the Pakistani government, China should explore new ways to ensure the safety of Chinese projects and personnel in Pakistan, particularly through carrying out cross-border counterterrorism operations.
In Sri Lanka, the ouster of the supposedly “pro-China” Rajapaksas has further alarmed the Chinese side. Since President Gotabaya took office, he not only publicly objected to the China “debt trap theory”, but also made it clear during the visit of the US Secretary of State Pompeo in 2020 that Sri Lanka would never sign the "Millennium Challenge Corporation" (MCC) with the US. However, now with the Rajapaksas in trouble, China seems to be concerned about the future of Chinese investments in the country; the negative publicity over the debt trap, pressure on China to do more—restructure debts, etc.; the possibility of Sri Lanka opening itself to MCC like agreements.
After a brief honeymoon period, Pakistan has now been accusing Kabul of failing to rein in Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters and stopping cross-border attacks on its security personnel.
On the other hand, in Chinese assessment, the US, unlike in the Cold War days, is now taking a greater interest in South Asia and strengthening its strategic investment in these countries. In recent years, senior officials of the US State Department have made an unprecedented number of visits to these small South Asian countries. China believes that this emerging trend of three-way competition between China, the US, and India has increased the bargaining space of small South Asian countries vis-à-vis China. Earlier, no matter which political force came to power in these countries, it had to turn to China for support, which guaranteed the security of Chinese interests in the region. However, now they have alternatives. So, should China relook at its South Asia strategy of prioritising economic relations and not directly getting involved in the countries’ political affairs? Can China afford to maintain its wait-and-watch approach and be patient till the pendulum in South Asia swings back in its favour or be proactive in the face of such major changes happening in the region? These have been some of the key questions currently doing around in Chinese policy circles.
China kept a close eye on the President of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Penpa Tsering’s US visit and his meetings with the speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, and National Security Council Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell.
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Antara Ghosal Singh is a Fellow at the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. Her area of research includes China-India relations, China-India-US ...Read More +