How to counter China’s expansionist plans in Southeast Asia
China and Sri Lanka recently signed the Hambantota Port deal which is being called a “win-win situation” for both.But what is really behind China’s purchase of a port in Sri Lanka?
Critics have been vocal about the fact that Sri Lanka has fallen prey to the economic-diplomatic moves that are seen as China’s “give loan and in return grab land” policy. Can Sri Lanka bear the debt burden and repay the $ 5 billion loan which was given in order to get a 99-year lease on the port given its internal compulsions?
Giving China majority control of the port raises concerns about Sri Lanka’s national security and relations with neighbours like India. It is well known that China is adept at manufacturing low cost products and tends to lend to commodity-exporting countries with highly competitive manufacturing sectors. This is what has happened in Sri Lanka.
China pumping money into South Asian countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka has raised India’s hackles. But the question is why can’t India give soft loans to Sri Lanka to pay off China loan and get the Hambantota port released? Will Pakistan be able to repay the CPEC loans?
What makes China’s grand plans click is that there is no other prominent economic power in the region which has such an expansionist focus. With the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in choppy waters, there are fears that the US is no longer a reliable ally in the region. This ironically applies to the Southeast Asian nations as well; looking at the case of the Philippines. With doubts over US credibility in the region, what China offers is a new sort of economic mentoring.
By making use of it huge economic clout, China is able to get what it wants in many parts of the world. India has long been obsessed with China’s military might. We are seeing that in Doklam. But of far greater danger is its economic hegemony which is now established in several areas, including in our neighbourhood. India needs to come up with a proactive response to this.
Financial might can be used as a tool to depict the confidence and purpose of a global superpower. Economic power is what fuels China’s assertive foreign policy. The dragon is ready to take risks and go where the West has been reluctant to venture. However, China’s replacement of western influence brings with it Beijing’s territorial ambitions and aggression. The only way to counter this is if nations in a particular region act in concert. But in South Asia, that seems hardly likely at the moment.
Amna Mirza is assistant professor of political science at the University of Delhi
The views expressed are personal