How is Sino-US tension affecting South Asia?
The US and its allies in general had expected China to be devastated and its ambitions disabled by the Covid-19 pandemic. But things haven’t exactly come out this way as it was not a local disaster but a pandemic hitting the US the hardest and sparing none of its allies.
This has made the US more vulnerable and anxious. Its allies show signs of panic pushing the US to take a harder line on China as it seems to be coping much better than they expected. If China beats the virus in the way, the West fears it may be the end of the US century. Things may go quickly from speculation space to reality.
Pro-US hawkish writers like Grant Newsham writing in Asia Times said that this was the, “Last chance for US to counter China’s rise". It worries that even amidst the corona crisis, China remains active in the region using force against ships and boats belonging to Vietnam and the Philippines. It has also dropped the word “peaceful” when mentioning unification with Taiwan, Newsham said.
In a less alarmist fashion, the same media outfit reported last week that the interrupted joint session of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) “sent a strong message of unity and solidity.”
Unlike the US, China hasn’t taken the hard line and wants to be portrayed as a power that is global and non-confrontational.
Fredrico Russo has said that, China wants to restart the Belt and Road Initiative in a more accommodating fashion: push trade agreements with Japan and South Korea as well as fulfill phase 1 of the US-Sino trade deal, though this is now in the lurch.
“By showing the will to respect the conditions, China has sent a positive signal that is in contrast with the more assertive tones used by the Trump administration.”
In a way, the Covid-19 crisis has shown a global governance gap that will need to be filled by the powers that be. China will try to show that it is behaving like a responsible world power and stake its claim.
The issues in the post pandemic world is therefore not of regional power balances but a global contest. Regions have a role to play but there are no local bi-polar equations anymore. It is this concept that may have an impact in South Asia more than in other regions.
South Asian equation
The echoes of the global transition of sorts are being heard in South Asia also where Sino-Indian “rivalry” as a media topic has emerged strongly in India amidst the crisis. It is seen as a battle between two “equal powers” as the rest of South Asia understandably doesn’t matter to the Indians policy lobbies. The Indian media says that China is deliberately fuelling tension to distract attention from its own current troubles.
Two areas are getting attention: One, that China has acted irresponsibly in handling the epidemic and may have caused it by carrying out germ research in Wuhan. This is helped by China’s media response which has also not been able to effectively counter this line. Such a position has found a ready ear in India.
However, within South Asia, this anti-China position has not sold well or encouraged any pro-Indian wave. In the other two countries where Covid-19 is a serious threat - India and Pakistan - anti-China rhetoric doesn’t go far. Both countries are concerned about their health and economics as well. So in that equation, China plays a big role as the main trading partner. While Pakistan is hostile towards India from birth, India is hardly popular in Bangladesh despite their common efforts in 1971 against Pakistan.
Nepal has become more strident in asserting itself against India as its latest map controversy shows. However, India has rejected the map, and Indian media is being very critical of Nepal. The map lines are historical issues going back to the pre 1947 scenario emerging out of state making cobbling together dispersed kingdoms and principalities.
It is not a territory seizing issue but is being perceived more as ignoring the Indian position. That rankles Delhi. Even a decade back this would not have been considered possible by Nepal. And in this case also, what strengthens Nepal is its increasing link with China.
India has also sounded alarm about China massing troops at the border. That is possible as China has not shied away from such positions even with the corona crisis at its peak. A skirmish with India will not benefit China in any way whose focus is more economic now than ever. However, the value will be more in India with potential for internal mobilization of public opinion as the corona crisis goes on.
But even as that goes on, old South Asia is crumbling and a new one that is emerging has China firmly as a factor. It is this reality and a new set of strategies that are required by the South Asian states in general including India. China is not set to leave the South Asian building anytime soon.