By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
India’s top foreign policy priority is its neighbourhood of South Asia and the Indian Ocean. This has led to worries, as Delhi watches China make inroads in its front yard.
On the one hand, an unprecedented growth in Sino-Indian bilateral trade has taken place, with China becoming India’s largest trade partner. But Chinese policies have also made India concerned it might lose its traditional regional dominance.
New Chinese economic initiatives in South Asia, and an expansion of Chinese influence and presence in the Indian Ocean, have greatly increased in recent years.
China has embarked on history’s most expensive foreign infrastructure plan. It has invested billions of dollars to build Port facilities and plan maritime trade routes as part of its “One Belt, One Road” initiative that will span at least 68 countries to help increase its global market reach.
Announced in 2013, the plan consists of ports, railways, roads, and airfields linking China to the wider world -- a “New Silk Road” that will greatly expand China’s economic and diplomatic influence.
It will connect 65 per cent of the world’s population and 30 per cent of global GDP.
Chinese President President Xi Jinping has allocated more than $1 trillion in infrastructure investments in order to project China’s “great power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics.”
As well, it has loaned so much money to its neighbours that critics liken the debt to a form of imperialism.
Sri Lanka, off India’s southern coast, owes more than $8 billion to state-controlled Chinese firms. So it handed over the strategic port of Hambantota on its southeastern coast to China on a 99-year lease. It will now be operated by China Merchants Port Holdings.
“The price being paid for reducing the China debt could prove more costly than the debt burden Sri Lanka seeks to reduce,” declared N. Sathiya Moorthy, a senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation.
India has watched with suspicion as cranes operated by Chinese firms also began to dot the skyline in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. In reaction, it has partnered with Japan to develop a port on Sri Lanka’s eastern coastline, and has entered into talks to invest in an airport near Hambantota.
Pakistan, India’s main adversary, is home to one of China's central infrastructure schemes: a near $60 billion collection of land and sea projects known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
China has committed $1.15 billion to finance construction projects and development of the new Gwadar port complex in Pakistan. To be developed by the China Overseas Port Holding Company under a 43-year contract, it will provide China’s navy future access to the Indian Ocean.
Chinese money is building power plants in Pakistan. These, as well as upgrades to three major highways, are also seen as a potential threat to India.
China is courting Myanmar, which has been sharply criticised for the brutal treatment of its Rohingya minority.
Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the architect of Myanmar’s military campaign to eject the Rohingya, visited Xi in November. Xi described Chinese-Myanmar military relations as the “best” ever.
Myanmar, too, is a state with a long coastline that offers a strategic outlet to the Indian Ocean. A consortium led by China’s Citic Group Corporation is scheduled to start building a $7.3 billion deep-sea port next year at Kyauk Pyu, a port town on the Indian Ocean. Pipelines from the port will carry gas and oil to southern China.
Bangladesh, India’s eastern neighbour, in December 2016 signed agreements worth $510 million with China Harbour Engineering Company and China State Construction Engineering Corporation to further develop the Payra deep-sea port on the Bay of Bengal.
The two companies will construct the main port infrastructure and will build housing, healthcare and education facilities in the port.
Some analysts have suggested all these ports are part of a so-called “string of pearls” strategy which would help China’s naval expansion in the region and check India’s strategic depth.
Another Indian Ocean country, Malaysia, in 2016 agreed to the first purchase of Chinese vessels for its navy, after a meeting between Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing. It was the first big purchase of Chinese arms by Kuala Lumpur.
With economic power comes military strength. China’s military budget has risen from $17 billion in 1990 to $152 billion in 2017.