The dynamics of getting closer to China, while also maintaining independent voice and choice in international relations is a growing challenge before India’s External Affairs Ministry and PMO. China would like to befriend India only on their terms. In other words, India must follow the China camp and support its foreign policies and actions on world platforms. China is pouring money in the guise of various types of aids and project investments across the world, especially in emerging economies, to buy up friends and also expand its economic influence.
In the last five years, especially after China displaced Japan as the world’s second-largest economy, China’s growing economic and strategic presence in Asia, Africa, and South America is leading debates in some countries and regions, though not all well-informed.
Much of China's project investments and FDI are also to boost exports after their decline to developed economies. India, sharing long border with China and also having China as the single largest trade partner, is rather confused about what China wants from India although the latter may not admit it. India’s trade with China is largely a one-way traffic concerning India’s massive imports from the communist country. It has left a huge annual trade deficit with China in recent years. Virtually, there exists no possibility of a balanced bilateral trade between the two countries.
The Asian giant considers India’s growing import dependence on the country, benefiting Chinese industry, big and small, and helping its massive labour force, as China’s strength is also India’s significant economic weakness. Such an unequal economic and trade relation has naturally had little impact on China’s diplomatic and strategic ties with India. China considers India as an ally of the West — led by the United States and some of its strategic partners in the Pacific region, especially Japan.
India’s powerful communist neighbour is naturally suspicious of India. This may explain why Chinese President Xi Jinping is unwilling to appreciate Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s point of view on Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar and its host Pakistan’s continuous support to terrorist attacks on India originating from their soil. And, China also continues to refuse support to India’s bid for Nuclear Suppliers Group membership and India’s presence in the contested Gilgit-Baltistan to facilitate China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. China provides the biggest economic and strategic support to Pakistan, nearly replacing the United States.
China, which has ruthlessly suppressed the secessionist movement in the majority-Muslim Xinxiang province bordering Central Asia, is surprisingly unconcerned about Pakistan’s terrorist nurseries and reliability of the Pakistan government, which had thrived on the economic and military support of the US for almost six decades and even provided shelter to master terrorist Osama bin-Laden before he was spotted and killed by the US army on a secret mission to his protected hideout in military garrison at Abbottabad.
China's support to nuclear Pakistan is essential to deliver a message to India and, in a way, to the US. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, both bordering India, China has committed a total of over $50 billion in aid and project investments. President Xi chose to visit India-friendly Bangladesh to meet Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on his way to the BRICS summit in Goa. He was the first Chinese head of state to visit Bangladesh in last three decades. China and Bangladesh inked over two dozen investment and development agreements which should please Bangladesh. India wasn't unhappy. But, what concerned India was a distasteful lie ahead of President Xi’s Bangladesh visit in officially controlled Chinese media that India is blocking the flow of the Brahmaputra river before it enters Bangladesh.
Beijing is prepared to pump large funds in aid and project investments in the east Asia, south-east and southern Asia regions, including SAARC countries, of which India is the biggest member. This itself should not concern India as long as India and China, the two large neighbours and home to some 45 percent of the world population, live as good friends with mutual trust. However, going by China’s international strategy, using aid and investment as a key instrument of driving friendship across nations, it appears that China is principally looking forward to building its strategic supremacy in the world by weakening the influence of the First World in most of these countries.
Fortunately for China, few countries can match its economic might today despite its recent grow slowdown mainly due to falling exports to the West. China is offering big aid and investments to mineral rich African and South American countries. For example, China has provided assistance to nearly 1,000 projects in Africa. The bulk of Chinese financing in Africa falls under the category of development finance. Chinese investment in Africa grew from $210 million in 2000 to close to $10 billion in 2015.
BRICS is important to China to peddle its global influence across four continents, outside North America. However, China openly seeks its supremacy in BRICS as it maintains in ASEAN and other regional forums. China is proceeding fast to achieve this goal. Few Chinese aid receiving countries see China with suspicion. Interestingly, China is acceptable to both Shia and Sunni majority countries in Asia such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, both sworn enemies of each other. The growing distrust for the US among some of its old allies, including Pakistan and the Philippines, is driving many of them to hold China’s hands.
Will other potentially fast emerging BRICS partners like Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa wholeheartedly accept China as their leader on the global platform? It is not likely. Both Russia and India, old friends and strategic partners, have their global ambition. Brazil, the richest South American nation, is also unlikely to surrender to China despite the large Chinese aid lately promised to former Portuguese colonies.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)