China Regional Hegemon or Benefactor?

China’s path to great nationhood starts from its neighborhood in South Asia. The most publicized regional relations are those between China and Pakistan. Many believe that the change of heart against fundamentalist militancy in Islamabad is due to a stern reminder from Beijing that it will not accept messing up with Chinese citizens. China’s relations with other neighbors in the south are not that well publicized. A South China Morning Post report indicated that Chinese Mainland has been courting Myanmar with leaders in Beijing having decided that the junta is now its most important ally in Asia. Beijing’s support for the military regime has strengthened recently as Myanmar has become the cornerstone of its revised Southeast Asia strategy in the face of what Beijing regards as the growing and unwanted influence of the United States in the region says the report. Sources also indicate that the Chinese are generally informed ahead of time of any significant planned changes and maintain contact with all three top junta generals, Than Shwe, Maung Aye and Thura Shwe Mann.

With more than a million Chinese, farmers, workers and businesspersons working in Burma in the last ten years, Chinese authorities fear that any upheaval in Burma would result in a mass exodus of Chinese back across the border, resulting in increased industrial and social unrest in their sensitive border regions. Myanmar is emerging, as the next destination for a power struggle in South East Asia, as Beijing is increasing its presence, so is India and Russia. The military junta appears to be unmoved by requests from the international community for greater democratization and measures as drafting the constitution appear to be just sham exercises to keep the international community at bay.

Further South across its claimed territory in India of Arunachal Pradesh, the Chinese have very carefully calibrated relations with Bangladesh. Recently a New Age report indicated that China expressed deep concern over developments in Bangladesh and hoped that peace, stability and development of the country be safeguarded in people’s interests. ‘As the friendly close neighbor of Bangladesh, China is very much concerned about the developments of Bangladesh situation,’ said new Chinese ambassador Zheng Qingdian, who sees a lot of potential of this country to develop. ‘Bangladesh has a large potential market with huge population and low-price skilled labor,’ he said, adding that the Chinese government would always encourage its companies in trade and investment in Bangladesh. China also wanted direct road link with Bangladesh to enhance trade to, from its southern province of Hunan, and given the landlocked state an access to sea in future. A cross-country road through Myanmar, if built, will enable people to travel between Kunming and Teknaf in 8-9 hours, while a high-speed train ride between Hunan’s capital and Beijing takes about 30 hours.

Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Mr. Zheng Xianglin in an interview with the influential Kathmandu daily, Kantipur indicated that Chinese people and the government are ready to extend harmonious cooperation and coexistence with neighbors, to enhance understanding and friendship. On the Terai issue, he indicated it is an ethnic group issue, which has existed in Nepal for a long time and is purely an internal affair of Nepal. He confirmed that Beijing will not interfere in Nepal’s affairs and the verdict of the Nepali people should be acceptable to the governments in the region.

China is likely to base its relationship with Nepal on commerce, trade and infra structure development. This will receive a boost once the Chinese high-level delegation visits Nepal in July. Though the Chinese ambassador was not forthcoming about the linkages with the political community in Nepal, it is unlikely that the Chinese have no influence over some of the elements in Nepal’s polity.

A neighbor most vulnerable to a possible big brotherly hug from China is the mountain kingdom of Bhutan moving towards democracy. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi met with Bhutan’s Information and Communication Minister Leki Dorji at the sixth ministerial meeting of the Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD) recently. Both sides pledged to enhance friendly cooperation. On the Sino Bhutan border issue, the Chinese foreign minister also indicated that he hoped the two nations could continue their friendly consultation before reaching a just and reasonable resolution, which is acceptable to both sides. After the Indo Bhutan Treaty has been reviewed, there has been greater interaction by the Bhutanese with other countries.

So what are China’s intentions in its neighborhood? Is it a feeling of social responsibility against its poor neighbors or politic of undercutting influence of other larger powers be it India or the USA? What ever it may be, India seems to be in no mood to find out and is increasing its presence in the region. So if China is acting purely out of philanthropic interests the neighborhood will certainly benefit, on the other hand it may be just the start of another Great Game in a different part of the World with different actors. Well we will have to wait and see.

Rahul K. Bhonsle is a Strategic Risk and Knowledge Management Consultant and writer with specific focus on defence and security, especially in South Asia.