Superpower China moves into South Asia

By Reginald MasseySouth east asia

China which has historically regarded itself as the Middle Kingdom has now become the workshop of the world and no country can sell its goods and services at a cheaper price. Hence China’s vast accumulation of foreign reserves. And power in the long term rests on the firm foundation of economic might. Just below China bordering the Himalayas and the Karakoram range lie India and Pakistan; both armed with nuclear missiles yet desperately poor. Both therefore need foreign investment. China which has a longstanding border dispute with India decided to invest in Pakistan a few years ago in a vast project called the China Pakistan Economic Corrridor (CPEC) which is currently in progress. China will be investing over 60 bn US Dollars in long term loans which many Pakistani analysts such as Najam Sethi regard with suspicion. At the same time the Pakistan government is hyping its achievement in bonding with the government of China and various Chinese companies. But, as Sethi has stated, the “devil is in the detail”.

It must be recalled that Pakistan’s tragedy was the early demise of its creator Jinnah who was essentially a reforming westernised secularist. Unfortunately the country thereafter fell into the clutches of self seeking politicians, scheming generals, feudal lords and grasping clerics. It soon became a client state that literally lived off the monetary and military aid provided by the USA. The Americans needed an ally in South Asia because of India’s tilt towards the USSR and so Pakistan readily joined the US sponsored South East Asia Treaty Organisation. The USA’s partner Saudi Arabia also chipped in by financing a network of madrassas, Muslim religious schools. This resulted in a strange duality in Pakistan: the elite was pro-American and the products of the madrassas were rabidly anti-American. The offspring of the elite flocked to American universities and many decided to become US and Canadian citizens while in Pakistan itself the madrassa products expressed their hatred of the USA by burning American flags in noisy demonstrations.

Apart from being a confused client state, Pakistan also became a garrison state where the military called the shots. The generals even ordered armed operations, as they did in Kargil, without the knowledge of the country’s Prime Minister. This meant that democracy was stifled at every level, political parties were hijacked by mafia-type families and politics was corrupted to the core. The country’s coffers have been drained and Pakistan will soon have to go cap in hand to the IMF for a loan. Donald Trump’s very first tweet of 2018 was no love letter to Pakistan. He claimed that though the USA had given Pakistan over 33 bn Dollars over the past 15 years all that the USA had received in return was “nothing but lies and deceit”.  American aid has been suspended till Pakistan does more to liquidate terrorist organisations operating from within its territory. Pakistan however claims that it has done all it can. There is therefore a deadlock with speculation in Pakistan that a new US – India axis has been forged against the China – Pakistan alliance.

When the Chinese presented Pakistan with their CPEC proposal the Pakistan government grabbed what came its way with both hands. The port of Gwadar has been built by China on the coast of Balochistan. This will not only give China access to Djibouti on the Horn of Africa where it has a naval base, but will also open up routes to the whole of mineral rich Africa, where China has vast investments, and to the oil rich Middle East. China’s oil imports are at the moment shipped out in tankers from the Gulf by a long sea route via the Arabian Sea, past India and Sri Lanka and through the Strait of Malacca. Any power inimical to China could easily blockade the Strait of Malacca and thus choke China into submission. Hence the CPEC and the construction of the road and rail infrastructure which will connect Gwadar to Kashgar in western China via Sindh, Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Gilgit and Baltistan. Special Economic Zones (SEZs) will be established for Chinese industrial enterprises which will get many favoured facilities including tax exemptions. It is not surprising that a leading Pakistani paper has screamed that the country has been lured into a debt trap.

The case of Sri Lanka’s southern port of Hambantota is relevant to mention at this point. The Sri Lankan government took loans amounting to 1.3 bn Dollars from China to develop a modern port. The work was executed on time by Chinese companies. So far so good. However, the port attracted little or no shipping and therefore no revenue accrued. But the loan had to be paid back with interest. Thus Sri Lanka was forced to hand over the port to China on a 99-year lease. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe then proclaimed, “We have started to pay back the loans.” His critics however accused him of eroding the country’s sovereignty. What an irony of history that Britain took over Hong Kong from China on a 99-year lease in the 19th century. And in the 21st century expansionist China is doing exactly the same. Or perhaps one can say that history repeats itself.

Every Indian knows that the East India Company came to India to trade and then proceeded to take over the entire subcontinent. Their project was facilitated by the fact that the Indian kingdoms and principalities were constantly at war with each other. Rather like India, Pakistan and Afghanistan today.

But back to Pakistan. Consider the coal-fired power plant situated at Sahiwal in Punjab province. It was built by the Chinese and is owned and operated by them. The 1,700 acres on which it stands was given gratis by the provincial government. The coal is imported mainly  from Indonesia to Port Qasim which is on the coastline of the Arabian Sea and then transported by rail all the way to distant Sahiwal. The Chinese sell the electricity to the Pakistanis for 8.3601 US Cents / kWh which is not cheap. They are not good Samaritans and have to recover their investment of 1.8 bn Dollars as well as make a tidy profit.

After 30 years the plant will be transferred to Pakistani control. The story is beyond belief. Coal-fired power plants are being phased out in countries conscious of environmental problems and Pakistan is welcoming the construction of these poison spewing monstrosities. After 30 years of consant use this plant will be outdated and even more dangerous. The pollution that this project will certainly cause has been ignored or brushed aside.

The Pakistan government makes a big deal of Pak – China friendship. I cannot imagine a bigger con trick perpetrated on a people by their own government. There is nothing common between the people of Pakistan and the people of China. They have a different culture, different heritage, different history, different food, different attitudes, different languages, and different habits. Indeed, if truth be told, the nearest people to the Pakistanis are the Indians who happen to share the subcontinent with them.

At the moment the government of Pakistan is weak and dithering. Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the ruling party, has been debarred from holding public office since he is facing corruption and money laundering charges. A proxy Prime Minister has been nominated to head the government. In such uneasy circumstances the country is drifting into the arms of China.

The Chinese are also moving into Bangladesh with a proposal to embark upon a China-Bangladesh-India- Myanmar Corridor. Work has started on roads, bridges and a coal-fired power plant. Ma Mingqiangi, China’s ambassador to Bangladesh, has recently said: “I do believe that it (China) will be the number one investor in Bangladesh.” Soon after this statement it was announced that the Chevron Corporation of the USA will be selling its three gas fields in Bangladesh to a Chinese consortium. Meanwhile the government of the Maldives has signed a Free Trade Agreement with China.

The Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea are regularly patrolled by Chinese nuclear and conventional submarines which can be used to lay mines. This is alarming since the Indian navy is woefully short of minesweepers. There is a requirement of 24 advanced minesweepers but India can only muster four, each of which has been in service for 30 years.

In the very backbone of India is landlocked Nepal, tightly wedged between India and China. Nepal is not particularly pro-India but it needs foreign investment. It has to be said that over the decades India has miserably failed to cement cordial relations with what was the last Hindu kingdom on earth. And now a railway connects Lhasa to Shigatse which is near the Nepal  border. China will certainly be surveying future possibilities such as extending the line to the Nepalese capital Khatmandu. A carrot has already been dangled. Nepal has been told that a rail connection to Lhasa and beyond will give Nepal access to Chinese seaports. In other words, Nepal would no longer be dependent on India.

A recent statement by Lu Kang, spokesman of the Chinese foreign ministry, claimed that the Doklam area “has all along been part of China and under China’s continuous and effective jurisdiction”. Lu also reiterated China’s claim over the Indian state of  Arunachal Pradesh. And in an apparent response Indian Prime Minister Modi said that India does not “eye anyone’s territory.”

Clearly India is batting on the back foot.