In recent years, China’s engagement in South Asia has expanded significantly beyond commercial and development projects to encompass political and security interests. While this interaction is often guided by the needs of specific countries, China’s expanded footprint has also brought challenges for countries in the region. In what ways are these countries vulnerable? How does Chinese engagement impact these vulnerabilities? What can South Asian countries learn from each other in engaging with China? And what can countries such as India and the United States do to address Chinese influence in the region?
Carnegie India hosted Deep Pal, a visiting scholar in the Asia Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, for a closed-door roundtable. He presented the findings of his project on the drivers, manifestations, and impacts of China’s relationships with four South Asian countries: Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. This was followed by a discussion moderated by Rudra Chaudhuri.

Discussion Highlights

  • China in South Asia: Participants detailed China’s footprint in South Asia over the past decade. They explained that the magnitude of China’s expansion was so vast that even countries with robust state institutions have had trouble managing its fallout. They further described how China advances its strategic interests through economic, political, and societal tools of influence. Participants also examined the impact of Chinese influence on three metrics: the strength of state institutions, the robustness of civil society, and the dynamics of prospective elite capture. They determined that countries in South Asia are vulnerable to Chinese influence in different ways; however, these countries also exercise agency and learn from each other’s experiences.

  • Other Players in South Asia: Participants discussed the role of and opportunities for other players such as India, Japan, and the United States in the region. They deliberated on how they could compete with China given that none of them individually possesses the resources to match China in South Asia. Participants suggested that other players partner with one another in engaging with South Asia. This way they could coordinate and leverage each other's unique capabilities to present an attractive engagement policy for countries in the region. This approach, however, is vulnerable to politicization and reduces the negotiating power of South Asian states and can therefore be less attractive to states in the region.

  • Chinese Interests and Methods of Influence: Participants observed that China’s interest in South Asia was primarily strategic in nature. Relationships fostered through developmental ties often expanded into political and people-to-people engagement with the aim of cultivating favor for China. Participants also highlighted that Chinese stakeholders such as state-owned enterprises, media outlets, and government representatives closely coordinated their approach in South Asian states. Debating the notion of a Chinese debt trap, participants posited that while Sri Lanka was not in one presently, it ran the risk of being caught in one shortly. Participants also noted that Chinese interactions with government institutions, civil society, and political elites in South Asian countries were characterized by opacity and exacerbated their vulnerabilities.

  • Agency and Choices of South Asian Countries: Participants discussed how countries in the region should be engaged based on their priorities and needs. Examining the question of whether these countries were being opportunistic in engaging China, participants observed that all countries operated on priorities guided by national and strategic interests as well as political ends. Participants also highlighted how China proactively engages with South Asian states, for instance, reaching out to governments in the region to propose and offer assistance on projects that they may not have even considered. Beijing has also prioritized a needs-based engagement with South Asia. It was quick to approach countries in the region for their Covid-19 related healthcare needs such as PPEs, testing kits, and so on. Overall, participants concluded that while there is a push factor from China to engage these countries, there is also a pull factor from countries in the region to engage partners that can help meet their national priorities which must not be ignored while examing the relationship between these countries and China.

This event summary was prepared by Saheb Singh Chadha, a research assistant and project coordinator at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.