China’s South Asian interactions have been the weakest link in its Asian and global foreign and strategic policy until the end of the last century. This was notwithstanding its rhetorical spin on Third World solidarity and its long term and instrumentalist relationship with Pakistan over the last fifty years at least. However, turn of the century, events like war on terror and the re-emergence of the United States in the region, the rise of India and China’s own trade, investment and resource needs dictated a reorientation of its policies in the region. Not surprisingly, there has been a marked increase in centres of South Asian studies not just in the traditional locations in South West China such as Sichuan and Yunnan, but also in the heartland of Chinese academic and policy studies institutions in Shanghai and Beijing, indicating a need for understanding the region.
Over much of the twentieth century China’s policy in South Asia was linked to its focus on unifying its territories and consolidating its boundaries. While China moved to negotiating and fixing its boundaries with Burma and Nepal, negotiations with India floundered in the fifties with far reaching implications for China’s policy in the region. Tibet became the implicit fulcrum of India-China relations with the Himalayan boundaries between India and China as an explicit point of conflict. The decadal urisings against Chinese presence within Tibet, the existence of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, an increasingly vocal and globally networked Tibetan refugee population and the Chinese demand for Tawang in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh has meant that China has had to deal with the Tibetan issue as a domestic as well as an external one. In its South Asian policy matrix this meant that China used its relationship with Pakistan to offset concerns along the Tibetan border. Over the years Chinese policy has skillfully used Pakistan to meet broader policy objectives as well. Pakistan has been instrumental in facilitating Henry Kissinger’s secret mission to Beijing in 1970, in being the frontline state against the erstwhile Soviet Union in Afghanistan not just for the US but also for China, in providing a gateway to West Asia, and in keeping the Taliban out of China’s troubled Xinjiang region.
While the development of close relations with Pakistan gave China strategic stability in South Asia it also destabilized inter-state relations. Sub-regionally it engendered mutual mistrust between India and China over geopolitical ambitions, the more acute on the Indian side given that it threatened to change the culturally and politically embedded notion of the subcontinent into the South Asian region. As Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh (after 1976) and Sri Lanka looked to establish and strengthen economic and military ties with China in the last quarter of the twentieth century the paradigm shift from the Indian subcontinent to the South Asian region began to take shape. Regionally and globally the animosity spilled over, for the PRC, into undercutting India’s claims to be an Asian and indeed a Third Worldspokesman. As significant as this was for India and inter-state relations in South Asia, Chinese policy in South Asia was a marginal aspect of its overall foreign policy framework. The more critical aspects of its foreign policy were its relations with the erstwhile Soviet Union, and with the United States and with East Asia and South East Asia after its economic reform process began in 1978.
More recently, however, political changes in South Asia as well as changing security architectures in Asia have prompted the PRC to rethink its South Asia policy. The strategic value of the region emerged initially because of a conjunction of two events: Pokhran II in 1998 and the American attack on Afghanistan after 9/11. The Indian state’s reasons for Pokhran II in 1998 placed China at the centre of Indian security concerns even though early statements were later moderated. China reacted dismissively but was forced to notice that Indian strategic policy was no longer Pakistan focused. Coupled with this, after almost a decade of liberalization, the Indian economy had begun to grow at 7-8 per cent per year and active diplomacy in Southeast Asia was beginning to pay off in the success of India’s Look East Policy. India’s profile in the region as a regional economic driver and trans-regional actor was taking shape. The US attack on Afghanistan gave the region further strategic value as American military and political presence increased and Pakistan, China closest South Asian partner, once again became a frontline state for the military venture in Afghanistan, this time without China’s close involvement and as a non-NATO ally of the US. China’s concerns for its western provinces and the presence of the US on its western flank meant that for the first time serious security issues were located in South Asia. Strategic and economic changes in South Asia, however, also gave Beijing an opportunity to enlarge and deepen its relationship with South Asian states making China an important factor in South Asia’s strategic and economic future
Beijing’s dimensional and limited policy towards South Asia has therefore changed remarkably. India is now cast not just as a target for Chinese policy but as a cooperative/competitive/strategic partner depending on the different levels at which diplomacy plays out regionally, trans-regionally and globally. Pakistan still remains an all-weather friend but the Chinese are increasingly wary of a friend that can no longer deliver on containing and splittist forces in Xinjiang who steal in from its territories or whose unstable internal situation puts Chinese investments and workers at risk within Pakistan. China relations with other South Asian nations have also been rejigged from a primarily military relationship to one where investments in energy and resource production and transportation imperatives are more prominent. China’s efforts to deal with South Asia as a region can also be discerned from its acceptance of observer status in SAARC. Clearly domestic economic policies and sub regional economic connections, as much as security concerns, drive much of its new policies in South Asia. Hence, Beijing now uses a mix of soft power, economic incentives and
military aid to secure its objectives in the region.