China's South Asia Drift

The East Asian giant has outgrown its bilateralist approach to the region.

China needs a new South Asia policy. The elevation of long-lingering tensions with India, insufficient consideration of Afghan security, and the inability to adjust to a changing Pakistan point to the fact that China has no comprehensive strategy for the region. With its focus firmly pointed to its east, China has overlooked the rising instability to its west. Its activities in South Asia, rooted in domestic political needs, have contributed to, not alleviated, tensions. The People’s Republic could be an asset for stability in South Asia if it could alter its perspective on the region. In doing so, it would build regional goodwill and enhance its bilateral relationship with the United States.

A La Carte is No Strategy

China’s territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, its involvement in the Korean Peninsula, and its engagement in Southeast Asian affairs are each components of a larger strategy designed to achieve Asia-Pacific preeminence. Yet, no similar strategic planning exists in relation to South Asia. Chinese investment in ports throughout South Asia may one day prove a part of a comprehensive political and military design, à la the String of Pearls, but right now China’s port investment is as much diplomatic outreach as it is economic planning. Relations with India have soured, primarily due to China’s maritime presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and recent tensions concerning the Line of Actual Control in Arunachal Pradesh. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are increasingly hesitant about Chinese investment. Even Pakistan’s policy establishment openly wonders about the depth of China’s commitment, viewing their strong relationship with China as useful for building roads, but not necessarily helpful in a security setting.

Beijing’s lack of a South Asia strategy is related to two factors: internal politics and insufficient long-term planning. It is no secret that China has reached a point where it must make some hard choices regarding its future development. The days of astonishing economic growth are over, as is the period where the Chinese population uniformly supported the government. China’s population has become too wealthy and holds too many political opinions for the state to govern without care for the opinions of citizens. Nationalism, still actively encouraged by the state, entices the government to take provocative action on occasion and demands the state to focus on its eastern borders. Cybercitizens, using social-media platforms like Sina Weibo, are a constant challenge to governance that requires immense investment to effectively monitor. In short, China’s increasingly politicized population is not focused on and largely does not care about South Asia.

Insufficient long-term planning is the second contributor to strategic missteps in South Asia. China’s standard operating procedure in South Asia is to conduct bilateral engagements with regional countries whenever possible. The reason for bilateral instead of multilateral engagement is that it keeps China removed from contentious issues within the region while providing multiple avenues for Beijing to pursue its national interests. This approach also fulfills China’s long-standing ideological preferences for peaceful development and respect for sovereignty. Yet countries in South Asia are already growing suspicious of China’s commitment and intentions. China’s diplomatic statements of friendship are juxtaposed with its obsession with accessing energy-transport options, its border incursions, and its generally mercantile view of the region. Furthermore, over the long term, China’s approach to South Asia creates yet another example of China freeriding on security provided by others and making hollow claims about its role as a world power.

Regional Approaches, Global Opportunity

China is aware of the problems it faces in South Asia, but it remains unclear whether the People’s Republic will take the steps needed to improve its footing there. First and foremost, the Chinese state must view South Asia as a strategic region, not merely a collection of individual states. Instability in one part of the region inevitably bleeds into other parts of South Asia. The standard Chinese approach of bilateral engagement does nothing to alleviate regional tensions and is counterproductive to Chinese economic and geopolitical goals in the long run.