Civilisationally speaking, we should be talking about the relationship between China and ‘Indic’ Southasia, rather than between China and the individual countries of our region. But there will be some romantic idealism attached to that notion, because the reality lies in the separate bilateral relations nurtured by each of our capitals with Beijing. And so, when we speak of Southasia’s China policy, we are necessarily referring to the sum of seven or eight different China policies.
At Himal, we do not propose a one-size-fits-all China policy for all Southasia, but we do see the benefit in comparing notes between Islamabad, Delhi, Kathmandu, Dhaka and Colombo – if not between the diplomats then between academics, analysts and business leaders. It would surely be useful to have a minimally coordinated approach, especially as Beijing seems to have completely abandoned its ideology-export industry and become market-oriented and pragmatic in its dealings.
It becomes necessary to pay close attention to India’s China strategy, as New Delhi’s arrangements are bound to impact the rest of Southasia. In the era of economic globalisation, India sees itself as both a partner and competitor of China when it comes to world power status. The other capitals, in varying degrees, tend to highlight the importance of Beijing in their foreign policy radarscope, in an attempt to balance the overbearing presence of India in the neighbourhood. Pakistan’s relationship with China also looms large because Islamabad is utilising the economic and geo-strategic openings to West Asia to increase its leverage with Beijing. The evolution of Gwadar port will be worth watching.
Even though the 2500 km Himalayan ridgeline marks the border between China and Southasia – from the Hengduan to the Karakoram – it is no longer the great strategic barrier of dated school textbooks. The reality of missile travel-time and the ability to push highways through the mountains indicates a need for us to set aside geopolitical blinders and to engage economically and socially with China and Tibet. The Karakoram Highway, and to a lesser extent the Kodari highway linking Kathmandu to Lhasa, show the way to the future – something that New Delhi is experimenting gingerly with, as reflected in the opening of Nathula a couple of months ago.
A full 45 years after the PLA’s incursions in Arunachal and Aksai Chin, it is heartening that New Delhi’s generals and analysts are at long last shedding their paranoia about the ‘vulnerable’ Himalayan frontier. This obsession – born out of the long-ago military unpreparedness and resulting mortification – for decades made New Delhi rigid on all issues related to the Himalayan rimland, from the Indian Northeast to Nepal to Kashmir.
Proof of increasing Indian flexibility is found on several fronts: in talk of reopening the Stilwell Road connecting the Northeast to Burma and Yunnan, in the Nathula opening, and lately in New Delhi’s acceptance of Nepal’s right to invite a United Nations team to monitor the peace-building efforts in the insurgency-torn country. All these advances have at their core a reduced suspicion in New Delhi of Chinese intentions, which itself received a boost last year when China officially recognised the incorporation of Sikkim into the Indian Union.
The engine of fast-paced growth arrived in Tibet this July in the form of the railway from Beijing via Golmud. The overall impact of this mechanistic incursion on the indigenous Tibetan culture will doubtless be drastic and tragic. At the same time, Tibet is also going to see increased economic activity. This, and the expanded exploitation of natural resources, will no duobt be supported by the advent of large numbers of Han Chinese from the mainland.
The economic growth of the high plateau will as a matter of course bring Tibet closer to Southasia, through new highways, air corridors and even railways. A large part of the Southasian engagement with China in the years to come will be in the form of engagement with the TAR. This is as it should be, because – civilisationally – while Tibet is of course its own society, it is more a part of Southasia than of the Chinese mainland.
Since it is not possible to contemplate a One China policy by all Southasian governments, might we suggest that at the very least the various countries evaluate their own attitudes – and those of their immediate neighbours – towards the People’s Republic in these times of flux? This issue of Himal, with its focus on ‘China-Southasia Bhai-Bhai’, seeks to promote that capacity for evaluation.