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So while US President Joe Biden circled Europe to join NATO last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was on a whirlwind tour of South Asia, making gestures that indicate how China wants to operate in its own volatile region – even extending an olive branch to rival India.

Wang’s itinerary says it all. In Islamabad, he attended the Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit hosted by China’s longtime friend Pakistan, marking the first time China had been invited as a guest of the 57-member bloc ( Chinese state media announced the invitation to signify that the Islamic world was giving a “clean bill of health for China’s treatment of [Uighur] Muslims” at home). Next, Wang made a surprise visit to Afghanistan, where he met with leaders of the new Taliban regime.

Finally, Beijing’s top diplomat landed in New Delhi for his first trip to India since Chinese and Indian troops clashed in a deadly skirmish in the Himalayas in 2020 (the Indians made it clear the visit was initiated by China). After trying to unfreeze ties with India, he ended his tour via Nepal, where China is vying for influence with the United States.

Asia watchers see Wang’s diplomatic fuss in South Asia as a necessary response to the difficult situation that China finds itself in regionally, given that Beijing’s investments and relations are not doing very well there.

“I see Wang Yi’s South Asian swing as a damage assessment tour,” says Sameer Lalwani, senior fellow for Asian strategy at the Stimson Center.

Ties with India are cold. The $65 billion economic corridor from China to Pakistan is at a standstill. Afghanistan still poses a threat. Nepal may be slipping away and, perpetually bankrupt, Sri Lanka is looking to Beijing for a bailout.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi answers questions during an interview with Reuters in Munich, Germany.Reuters

“[Wang’s] The visit to Pakistan came as Islamabad is in the throes of a new political crisis,” says Lalwani. “His surprise visit to their mutual Taliban partners in Afghanistan allowed him to see firsthand the economic and governance disaster they have become and the security problem they are creating for Beijing.”

Tanvi Madan, India Project Manager at Brookings and author of Fateful Triangle: How China Shaped US-India Relations During the Cold Warsees Wang’s journey in the context of China’s moment of double trouble, globally and locally.

First, China’s stance on the Russian-Ukrainian war, “where it feels pressure from many sides over how it supports or appears to support Russia,” Madan says. The second aspect, meanwhile, involves China hitting “headwinds for its interests in South Asia as a whole.”

China and India find themselves on the rare same page on Russia. New Delhi and Beijing have refused to condemn Moscow and continue to deal with Russia despite the sanctions. But that’s where the similarities end.

While China is India’s largest trading partner, with two-way trade hitting the $95 billion mark in 2021-22, trade remains heavily tilted in favor of Beijing. In addition, China has armed and supported Pakistan, India’s great rival, for decades.

Since their 2020 military clash, Delhi has tightened the screws on Chinese companies, banning certain imports and applications. But now, China wants to continue to cooperate while putting aside border tensions.

Beijing tried to turn Wang’s trip to Delhi into a repair mission. The Foreign Ministry document states that “China does not pursue so-called ‘unipolar Asia’ and respects India’s traditional role in the region”, adding that “if China and India were to talk about one voice, the whole world would listen”.

However, courting India while trying to beef up in South Asia will not be easy for Beijing. Not in the mood to be a cheap date, New Delhi has indicated things will not return to business as usual unless border tensions are resolved and China disengages militarily. And as for Wang’s wish that the two countries speak with “one voice”, the Indian foreign minister clarified that India has its own views on the international order.

These views may converge with those of China on issues like Ukraine (both sides have demanded a ceasefire), but not on other security and trade issues, such as Kashmir, the Chinese Belt and Road initiative or the Quad.

As its South Asian interests and influence grow, China could see itself as a major player – but India begs to hold off. This is not Chinatown. Not yet.

“These are overlapping peripheries. China could consider [South Asia] his “hood,” Madan says. “But India has seen South Asia as its ‘hood’ for far longer than Beijing.


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