Global Affairs Desk

Tue Jun 18 2024

Pax Sinica, String of Pearls and India’s “Act East"

~ By Aarush J on 3/15/2022

Pax Sinica, String of Pearls and India’s “Act East"

Pax Sinica refers to periods of peace in East Asia, Central Asia, Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia led by China. The Eastern world experienced the first Pax Sinica during the reign of the Han Dynasty. A resurgence of the term has been experienced in the recent years, a phenomenon largely accredited to the rapidly growing Chinese economy and Chinese influence.

What will the implications of Pax Sinica be to the world? Will China’s ascent up the global order be a seamless one? What is the String of Pearls Theory? More importantly, what implications will it have for India? What are the tools in India’s arsenal to counter this growing influence?

This article will shed light on the following topics:

  • String of Pearls and China’s larger geopolitical ambitions
  • Chinese investments around India
  • Impact of String of Pearls on India
  • India’s measures to deal with this

String of Pearls and China’s larger geopolitical ambitions

In the past decade or so, China has invested or committed more than $150 billion n the economies of Bangladesh, the Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. China is now the largest overseas investor in the Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, Maldives and several countries in India’s neighbourhood are some of the sharpest arrows in China’s quest for regional supremacy and startegic autonomy. As the economies of some of India’s neighbours continue to quiver, China continues to increase its presence in these countries in the form of investments, or infamously called “debt trap” diplomacy.

China is thinking of geo-economics, by investing in the financial institutions of these countries. Beijing has taken stakes in the Karachi and Dhaka stock exchanges. China clearly aims to create new rules and financial systems in the region and ultimately dominate India’s neighbourhood.

Chinese Investments around India

  • The Maldives- China has become a key player in Maldivian politics with large investments in infrastructure and tourism. Former Maldivian president has publicly speculated that China is being allowed to buy up whole islands and extend loans which the government cannot afford.

  • Pakistan- The multibillion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor announced in 2015, was aimed at overhauling Pakistan's crumbling infrastructure and linking the nation's southern port of Gwadar to western China. The project, part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative or One Belt on Road was originally estimated to bring in $46 billion of investment into Pakistan. But it's now estimated to have increased to about $65 billion. During the first phase of CPEC, dozens of projects, mainly related to power and transport infrastructure, were carried out with the help of Chinese money. In the southern province of Sindh, Chinese firms have not only completed several CPEC projects but have also bought a 40% stake in the Pakistan Stock Exchange (PSX) company. The strategically located Gwadar port in the province of Balochista is run by a Chinese company.

  • Sri Lanka-China's increasing control over high-profile Sri Lankan infrastructure projects has renewed fears that the country may soon become a Chinese colony. Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2017 said it would be difficult to pay the loans taken to build the project. He agreed to lease the port for 99 years to a venture led by China Merchants Port Holdings Co. in return for $1.1 billion.

  • Nepal- China has emerged as the largest FDI contributor to Nepal in recent years. Chinese investors had pledged direct investment worth 11.15 billion Nepali rupees (94.65 million U.S. dollars) in Nepal during the first two months of the 2021-22 fiscal year starting in mid-July, about half of the total committed during the whole 2020-21 fiscal year. Chinese investors registered a total of 62 enterprises from mid-July to mid-September, and the amount of investment pledged is about half of the 22.5 billion rupees (190.87 million dollars) committed by the Chinese investors during the entire 2020-21 fiscal year.

  • Bangladesh- Like many emerging economies. Bangladesh is keen on developing its infrastructure. However, Bangladesh does not get an uninterrupted flow of funding from other partners (Eg. World Bank withdrawing from funding the Padma Bridge). This ultimately leads this country to the BRI. Bangladesh became a part of the BRI in 2016 and has seen its ties with Beijing grow exponentially in recent years, especially since Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Dhaka in October 2016. China is currently the biggest trading partner of Bangladesh and Bangladesh is set to receive Chinese investments of over $40 billion under the bilateral partnership. From 2009 to 2019, the Dhaka Tribune found that China invested an estimated $9.75 billion in transportation projects in Bangladesh. Currently, nine projects are running under the BRI in Bangladesh, including the mega project of the Padma Bridge Rail Link, Bangabandhu tunnel under the Karnaphuli River, and Dasher Kandi Sewerage treatment plant. The success of BRI projects in Bangladesh is highly dependent on the sustainable financing and economic viability of the projects.

Countries that fare poorly on the economic front are enticed by Beijing to accept loans and debt on certain conditions which the receiving country will not be able to oblige by. The Chinese then take over these projects as collateral payments.

Impact of String of Pearls on India

  • It endangers Indian maritime security. China is developing more firepower with more submarines, destroyers, vessels, and ships. Their presence is a potent threat to India’s naval security.

  • Indian resources will be diverted towards defense and security. Thus, the economy will not reach its potential, hampering economic growth. This may lead to instability in the country and the whole east and southeast region.

  • The strategic clout of India which it enjoys today in the Indian ocean will be reduced. China doesn’t have any openings in the Indian ocean, the Strings of pearls will lead to China surrounding India and it will be able to dominate it. Countries that today consider India as a partner in response to Chinese aggression may end up in the lap of China.

  • China’s support for India’s traditional enemy, Pakistan, and the construction of its Gwadar Port is viewed as a threat, compounded by fears that China may develop an overseas naval military base in Gwadar, which could allow China to conduct expeditionary warfare in the Indian Ocean region.

India’s measures to deal with the String of Pearls

A multi-pronged strategy is equipped in India’s arsenal to counter the String of Pearls. This strategy involves building ports , Coastal Surveillance Radar systems to track Chinese warships and naval activities. Importing state of the art surveillance planes which can track down Chinese submarines, operating Airport in the neighbouring country to keep a check on the Port built by China, deepening defence ties, expanding bilateral relations with South Asian countries, Island nations in the Indian Ocean region, Southeast Asian Nations and carrying out regular military exercises with navies of USA, Japan, Australia.

A few more important actions taken by India to counter China’s growing naval presence are:

  • Act East Policy- The Act East Policy was launched in 2014 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It has been used to make important military and strategic agreements with Vietnam, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand helping India to counter China. The objective of “Act East” is to promote economic cooperation, cultural ties and develop a strategic relationship with countries in the Asia-Pacific region through continuous engagement at bilateral, regional, and multilateral levels thereby providing enhanced connectivity to the States of North Eastern Region including Arunachal Pradesh with other countries in our neighbourhood. Relationships with Japan, South Korea,  Vietnam, Malaysia, Australia have been upgraded to a strategic partnership.

Building and accessing ports

  • India is developing the Chabahar port in Iran, opening a new land-sea route to Central Asian countries bypassing Pakistan. It is strategically located close to the Chinese Gwadar Port in Pakistan and is close to the Strait of Hormuz. Chabahar provides India with a strategic position as it overlooks the Gulf of Oman, a very strategic oil supply route.
  • India is building a deep-sea Port in Indonesia, a place named Sabang. It is of strategic significance as it is close to the Strait of Malacca and India’s Andaman & Nicobar Islands. 
  • India has built a deep water port in Sittwe in Myanmar in 2016.
  • India has also signed agreements to access strategically located naval facilities of Oman. This facility is close to the Strait of Hormuz. More than 30% of oil exports pass through the Strait of Hormuz.
  • India has signed an agreement to access Changi Naval Base of Singapore, which is strategically located close to the Strait of Malacca.

Military and Naval relationships

  • India has developed a strategic naval relationship with Myanmar which gives India an increased footprint in the area. It has also made agreements for military cooperation in the region with Japan, Australia and the USA. The four countries carry out joint military exercises in the Indian Ocean Region and are known as the ‘Quad'.

Building Coastal Radar Networks

  • Bangladesh – India has recently signed an agreement with Bangladesh to install 20 Coastal Surveillance Radar Systems along the coastline of Bangladesh. This will help India to monitor Chinese Warships which have been frequently visiting the Bay of Bengal.
  • The Maldives – India will install 10 Coastal Radar Systems in the Maldives. These radars will relay live images, videos, location information of Ships moving in the Indian Ocean Region. The project is implemented by Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL). As of 2019, 7 of these projects have been completed.
  • Sri Lanka – 6 Coastal Surveillance Radars (CSR) have been installed in Sri Lanka. As per some reports, India is planning to set up at least 10 more CSR in Sri Lanka.
  • Seychelles – 1 Coastal Surveillance Radar has been Installed in Seychelles. The 1st Coastal Surveillance Radar in Seychelles became operational in 2015. It was commissioned on the main island of Mahe. More Coastal Surveillance Radar will be installed in the small islands of Astove, Assumption and Farquhar. There are plans for 32 more Coastal Surveillance Radar Systems in Seychelles.

Several other networks and military relationships are being developed with other countries to counter China’s growing influence and footprint in the region. With the rise in several initiatives such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and India’s Act East policy, China’s ascent onto the world stage will be riddled with such initiatives. Moreover, China’s global ascent in a multipolar world is heavily dependent on other countries, unlike the era of bipolarity during the Cold War years.

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