The focus of recent debates around China’s decade-long push into South Asia where it has been assiduously building multidimensional relationships with the countries of the Indian subcontinent has, understandably, been on how they impact Indian interests.
New Delhi has long held the view that bar its all-weather adversary Pakistan, the region falls under its ‘sphere of influence’ though the term is never used publicly for obvious reasons. Chinese financing in the South Asian region sans India has been well-documented.
While Pakistan is now virtually a client state, Nepal too was going down that road thanks in the main to Indian mishandling of sensitive bilateral issues but the political troubles of the embattled pro-Beijing caretaker Prime Minister KP Oli and a concerted effort to repair the Nepal-India relationship in recent times is thought to have loosened Kathmandu’s Chinese embrace. Bangladesh has emerged as a vital cog in the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR), an arm of President Xi Jinping’s wider Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Dhaka has also signed multiple arms deals with Beijing including acquiring Chinese made frigates and submarines for its navy as China looks to increase its presence in the Bay of Bengal which leads to the Straits of Malacca and from there to the South China Sea, crucial for China’s economy in terms of both energy and trade exports.
Through the MSR, China has invested heavily in the region’s physical infrastructure including in several strategic ports including Chittagong in Bangladesh and, further south, Hambantota in Sri Lanka. Though these are civilian ports, they offer Beijing the potential to operate support facilities along the Bay of Bengal.
Apart from the brouhaha over the Chinese involvement in Hambantota, however, the potentially crucial role Sri Lanka is likely to play in China’s South Asian strategy has slipped under the radar.
As Sri Lankan strategic expert Bhagya Senaratne puts it: “Despite the possibility of Sri Lanka falling prey to Chinese ‘debt-trap diplomacy’, the former’s economic relations with China have benefitted the island-state and improved its economic and political standing in the region. Most analysts observe Sri Lanka’s relations with China within the context of Beijing seeking influence in the region, and rarely from the perspective of how Sri Lanka has actually sought out funding.”
Domestic pressure within Sri Lanka has remained a driving force behind bilateral relations with China, especially as other friendly countries were unable and/or unwilling to assist Sri Lanka in times of need such as during the 1983-2009 civil war when the infrastructure destroyed by the LTTE needed to be rebuilt.
Chinese engagement with private businesses from the mid-1990s to the present, and Sri Lanka subscribing to the BRI in 2014, ought to be seen in this context.
Now, with India’s ruling party in an alliance with the AIADMK for the forthcoming Assembly poll in Tamil Nadu, and the Dravidian party under pressure from its even more doctrinaire rival DMK to prove its pro-Sri Lankan Tamil credentials, it could well be domestic pressure in India that may provide China a fresh opportunity to draw Colombo in closer.