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What China's meeting with Afghanistan, Nepal and Pakistan means for India

ISSUE-3-ENG-04-08-2020-India

Amid rising tensions with India, China last week held a quadrilateral meeting with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal to discuss coordination on Covid-19 response and boosting economic recovery. 

The meeting was chaired by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and attended by Afghanistan’s acting Foreign Minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar, Nepal’s Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali and Pakistan’s Economic Affairs Minister Makhdoom Khusro Bakhtiar through video conference. 

The conference comes a month after Indian and Chinese troops clashed in Galwan, resulting in the death of 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese casualties. Both the countries have been involved in disengagement talks, but bilateral relations have worsened in recent days. 

Wang, according to a statement from the Chinese foreign ministry, said that the countries should consolidate the consensus on solidarity against Covid-19 and reject politicisation of coronavirus. He also said that the four countries should continue to promote the joint construction of the Belt and Road Initiative, explore ways to synergise the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Network. 

Wang proposed that the attending countries also support the extension of the CPEC to Afghanistan, and create a regional network of connectivity.

Experts said that the meeting was a clear signal that China wants to encircle India.

India has not joined China’s Belt and Road project. Bruno Macaes, a non-resident senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of the recent book Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order, had told HuffPost India in an interview last month that Beijing has been retaliating against New Delhi for not participating in China’s ambitious project. 

“There is a connection between the border developments both in Doklam (in 2017) and now in Galwan and the Belt and Road. I think China is trying to show the Indian government that there is a price to pay if you oppose the Belt and Road - a price to pay at the border, in terms of aggressive military posture,” he said. 

India has refused to change its position on the Belt and Road, with External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar saying last year, “BRI rethink, the answer is no.”

Announced in 2013 by Xi Jinping, Belt and Road is China’s ambitious project to connect Asia, Africa and Europe. In his book Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order, Macaes said the Belt and Road are not predominantly about transportation infrastructure but about economic integration.

India skipped the 2017 inaugural summit of the Belt and Road, citing its position on the CPEC and concerns over debt burden. Macaes had said that at the beginning of the project, China just assumed that India would be forced to join if its neighbours did so. “Even today, this seems to be a very popular opinion in Beijing,” he said.

Abanti Bhattacharya, Associate Professor at Department of East Asian Studies, Delhi University, told HuffPost India that China’s four-nation meeting on Monday can be looked as a plan “to encircle India with a hostile ring of nations”.

“Militarily, it means not just a threat of two front wars but also creating the spectre of a third front.”

Tensions have been brewing between India and Nepal since Kathmandu issued a new map which shows Kalapani, Limpiyadhura and Lipulekh within its borders. Calling it “untenable”, India had said that artificial enlargement of territorial claims by Nepal is not based on historical facts or evidence.

Meanwhile, China has begun laying the proposed strategic railway line connecting Lhasa to Kathmandu and finally to Lumbini, India Today reported.

“Nepal’s reaction is very much in line with insecurities of a small nation. Plus, the government is under a Communist regime sharing ideological affinity with China,” Bhattacharya said. 

The discussion over Belt and Road at China’s meeting is significant. Apart from Macaes, other observers have also pointed out the connection between the project and the Ladakh standoff (see here and here). 

“BRI is the other word for Chinese hegemonic order. Through the creation of client states on its southern periphery, China seeks to expand and perpetuate its hegemonic order, and thereby, marginalise both US and India,” Bhattacharya said. 

The rivalry between China and the US has only escalated in recent days. After the US ordered China to close its consulate in Houston, Beijing, in a tit-for-tat move, ordered the closure of the US consulate in Chengdu. The US has also been very vocal over what it calls China’s “bullying” of countries in the Himalayas. President Donald Trump ended preferential economic treatment for Hong Kong after China imposed a new security law. This evoked a strong reaction from Beijing, which vowed retaliatory action. 

Nabarun Roy, Assistant Professor in Department of International Relations, South Asian University, told HuffPost India that while the BRI angle cannot be discounted, it could also be that China is upping the ante at the regional level as regards politics of alignments and counter-alignments.

“With India and the US coming closer on strategic and military issues, and India’s stand on the ‘Quad’, China’s reaching out to India’s neighbours reminds India that it cannot escape its geography and immediate neighbours.”