Review: The China Factor by Shantanu Roy-Chaudhury
Earlier this month, as India celebrated its 75th year of independence, a Chinese research ship obtained permission to dock in the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota
Earlier this month, as India celebrated its 75th year of independence, a Chinese research ship obtained permission to dock in the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota. Despite Colombo’s initial considerations of New Delhi’s protest in this regard, Beijing managed to get its way. Revealingly, events such as these are what Shantanu Roy-Chaudhury discusses and attempts to caution against in his new book, The China Factor: Beijing’s Expanding Engagement in Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Factual and analytical, the volume has been published in association with the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi.
The introduction by Air Marshal Anil Chopra highlights the growing competition in the Indian Ocean region, and, as he puts it, “the greatest strategic challenge” of China’s growing influence. In line with this argument, Roy-Chaudhary, in his overview, narrows down Beijing’s strategic interest in the region into four thematic axes namely, growing markets, resources and raw materials, transport corridors, and encircling India. Each makes it essential for India to keep the ‘China factor’ (described as a phenomenon felt across many states) in mind. Here, a subtle complaint is registered through an interesting analogy: Unlike a black swan, a rarity in nature, the Chinese threat is a common fact, much like a “gray rhino”. However, it is this very obviousness that makes India slow to react unless there is a crisis at its doorstep.
Chapter 1 outlines the events leading to China’s century of humiliation and its desire to overcome it by restoring the centrality of “the Middle Kingdom”. The author notes that many Chinese hawks (ying pai) have been engaged to enable the rise of China, at least ideologically, through the promotion of a certain narrative of history. Apart from this, he draws the reader’s attention to the emphasis placed on China’s growing muscle power, including the remodelling of its forces along modern lines. From Chairman Mao’s “two bombs, one satellite” projects and Deng Xiaoping’s 24-character foreign policy to Xi Xinping’s Chinese dream, crucial aspects of China’s diplomacy are touched upon. While this chapter is impressive, others need updating beyond 2018 and more uniformity (in referring to land measurement units, for instance).
The next chapter, an explication of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) goes beyond the usual topics to bring out the role State Owned Enterprises (SOE) play in facilitating China’s economic diplomacy. Roy-Chaudhary states that China aims “to use economics to promote politics and combine politics and economics”. The BRI is contextualized with the necessary focus being on geopolitics in the Indian Ocean region, where China uses it as a “wedge” among states to itself remain powerful.
The next four chapters, which are especially relevant to policy makers, are dedicated to the specific country mentioned in each title. They touch on political, economic and defence relations with an assessment of India’s position in the context. Each of these chapters ends with a section showing the way forward by answering the question: “What can India do?”
With Bangladesh, the author suggests areas of cooperation such as supporting Dhaka’s Blue Economy Initiative, its nuclear energy programme (the Rooppur nuclear plant is an example), and assisting in building human capital. In fact, Bangladesh appears to be India’s best bet with Chinese influence being rather deeply entrenched in the other three states. Sri Lanka, especially, stands out and Roy-Chaudhury provides enough examples -- maritime “research surveys” by Chinese vessels in Sri Lankan waters in 2014, Chinese funding of the 2015 general election through SOEs, and reneging from the tripartite agreement between India-Japan-SL in 2021 over the East Container Terminal at Hambantota. Similarly, the Chinese hold over the Maldives is strong, though India is gaining ground there. The decision to reconsider the FTA with China reflects Male’s cautious stance against Beijing. In Myanmar, it is the Chinese who have been treading cautiously. China has been influencing the nation’s politics by funding Ethnic Armed Organizations (the United Wa State Army, most prominently). This has now become a concern as the EAOs have joined hands against the Tatmadaw in the post-coup period. The author also brings up the idea of “diplo terrorism” in Myanmar, which is of some concern to India. All of this material is a useful documentation of geopolitics and geo-strategy in India’s neighbourhood.
The China Factor might appear to be yet another book in the ever-expanding library of tomes warning us about our giant neighbour’s intentions. However, research on pertinent topics cannot stop. That this is an addition to the growing literature on the subject is an added reminder that New Delhi needs to take note of the “gray rhino” before it is too late.
Shrabana Barua is an assistant professor with the department of political science at Hindu College, New Delhi.