China has been gaining control over small countries in the South-East Asia region by making massive investments. With Russia and Pakistan playing second fiddle to it, China offers a big challenge to Bharat
China mixes trade with politics. Its policy of investment in various countries, especially in South Asia, is closely associated with territorial ‘ambitions’ as highlighted by the dragon taking up the lease of Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Gwadar port in Pakistan, the two countries where it has promised huge investments. The list may swell as China eyes the Maldives with lucrative investment proposals ostensibly with an aim to curb Indian influence in the region.
China is overtly becoming very assertive with its global ambitions and as a part of which, it is trying to check India’s influence in South Asia by having an upper hand in the region. But Chinese manoeuvring does not stop in South Asia, it is trying to gain territories elsewhere also by promising huge investments as in African countries.
China is unscrupulously using the demands and pressures of ‘debt traps’ to achieve its ambitions of gaining territories elsewhere for military purposes as has been in the case of Sri Lanka, which last year handed over the Hambantota port to China. The Lankan government took over 8 billion loans from China for the infrastructure projects which later Sri Lanka found it difficult to repay. As a bargain, the Hambantota port which is valued at $1.1 billion was given to China for a 99-year lease in 2017 as a way of paying down some of that debt.
Similarly, India’s other neighbour Pakistan also finds itself in the same quagmire, as it handed over the operation of Gwadar port to China for a period of 40 years. It is estimated that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship venture of BRI, will put Islamabad in a $ 90 billion debt from China which they have to repay in 30 years. As per an agreement, Pakistan has already allowed the state-run China Overseas Port Holding Company to take 91 percent of revenue collected from terminal and marine operations and 85 percent of gross operations revenue from the Gwadar free zone as a way to pay back debts.
The Chinese gambit to encircle India through various overseas bases in its backyard has once again strengthened the notion of “Pearl of Strings” which India has been trying to tell the international community about the perilous situation for over a decade.
Despite the Chinese aggressive posturing India has done well to reach out to its neighbours who now understand Chinese deceit very well. As a result of which recently few of its neighbours including Nepal, Pakistan, and Myanmar have shown the unwillingness to Chinese firms for starting hydropower projects in their countries. India’s rising stature coupled with its burgeoning relations with various countries, including USA and UK, serves the purpose well to counter China.
“Definitely China is making such inroads through investment proposals but India is a strong country with an independent foreign policy with capabilities to thwart Chinese expansionism in South Asia. As long as India maintains the individuality of its foreign policy striking alliances with other big powers like USA and UK, it will certainly help in countering Chinese influence,” says Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy, Deputy Director, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
But challenges for India are many as China stretches its foothold further. A similar story is in the unfolding in the Maldives as well which has been warming up to China of late. India feels that the Maldives can be the next country to fall under the Debt trap of China and can cede land for the dragon to make its naval base there.
The Chinese firms are investing hugely in various projects which include $830 million for upgradation of the airport. The Chinese are also building a 25-storey apartment complex and a hospital. Just a little over six years ago till 2012, Beijing didn’t even have an embassy in the Maldivian capital of Male which reflects the insignificance of the tiny country for the dragon. But suddenly everything has changed as China considers the Maldives an important country for its ambitious Maritime silk route.
The Maldives already owes its 70 percent of its foreign debt to China which has shot up due to the various Chinese projects in the infrastructure, trade, and energy sectors. This sounds an alarm bell for India as China can use the debt trap as a bargaining chip to acquire a naval presence in the Maldives for writing off some of the debts which may be a great setback to India’s dominance in the Indian Ocean. The dragon has already acquired an uninhabited island Feydhoo Finolhu from the Maldives on a 50 years lease for the use of tourism.
The recently concluded Free Trade Agreement between China and Maldives will only increase the latter’s debt with China.
Apart from the regional rivalry the present state of Chinese expansionism also threatens the intercontinental organisations like BRICS of which both India and China are the members. Every member of the BRICS is capable of forestalling pressure from any quarter. All the nations of BRICS have a long culture and history with an independent foreign policy and they can take decisions independently without being coerced to fall in Chinese gambit. Despite the assurances, China and Russia partnership within the BRICS may cause trouble for India. In the recent times, Russia has also been trying to mend ties with India’s rival and non-BRICS member Pakistan which may affect India’s long-term interest. Any signs of a coalition between Russia-China and Pakistan may be very portentous for India.