In ancient and medieval times, foreign rulers, envoys and traders were required to “kowtow” before the Emperor of China, symbolising recognition of the supremacy of the ruler of the “Middle Kingdom”. Foreign rulers —described by the Chinese as “barbarians”—duly performed the “kowtow”, by kneeling and touching their head three times on the ground, while facing the Chinese Monarch.
This was to symbolise the acceptance of their vassal status before the Chinese Emperor. As China now flexes its economic and military muscle across Asia, its present day rulers do not expect foreigners to kowtow. They, however, expect rulers of Asian countries to fall in line with their security and economic imperatives.
Only two Asian Powers, India and Japan, can resist such pressures. Japan is fortified by its alliance with the US and its own economic and military power. Aggressive Chinese military posturing across the South and East China Sea is challenging Japan’s quest for a wider role in Asia. Its policies of limiting India’s role are primarily fostered by equipping Pakistan’s nuclear armoury, enhancing its missile potential and now augmenting its maritime potential, with the decision to supply Pakistan eight attack submarines, to operate out of the Chinese-built Gwadar Port.
The second major facet of Chinese “containment” of India is to lure away India’s neighbours by provision of large amounts of project-based economic assistance and liberal supply of weapons. China knows that India just does not have the resources to match its economic and military assistance. Finally, recent developments across South Asia indicate that China has started playing a much more active role in the internal politics of India’s closest neighbours.
During his recent visit to Bangladesh, President Xi Jinping made it a point to meet the anti-India opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia. He invited her to visit China and even proposed direct party-to-party links between her rabidly anti-Indian and Islamist Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Chinese Communist Party. It is no secret that in Nepal, China is flirting with sections of the erstwhile Maoists, with former Prime Minister Oli being one of its favourite leaders. Interestingly, the avowedly atheist Chinese Communists are now showing interest in developing Lord Buddha’s birthplace Lumbini, located close to Nepal’s borders with India.
It is, however, in Sri Lanka that the Chinese have been showing an active interest in spending huge amounts of money in the development of port-related projects in Colombo and in Hambantota, located in the heart of former President Mahenda Rajapakse’s constituency. Visitors to Colombo learn of the close links between the Chinese and the family and political establishment of former Rajapakse. It was during Rajapakse’s tenure that Chinese submarines started visiting Colombo, notably during a visit to Colombo by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Moreover, Rajapakse ignored India’s expressions of concern at his readiness to develop a “Colombo Port City” project with Chinese assistance. The present Sri Lanka Government is renegotiating the terms of this project, which were accepted by Rajapakse.
As a result of reckless borrowing from China, Sri Lanka is being compelled to convert the foreign debt into equity participation, giving the Chinese a key role in the management and use of Hambantota Port and adjacent airfield. This will enable China for constant surveillance in the Indian Ocean, across India’s western shores. These facilities could soon be linked by China to facilities Beijing has now got in Gwadar. We are now going to face an enhanced Sino-Pakistan challenge across the Indian Ocean. Do we have a comprehensive strategy to meet these challenges?