Geopolitics are always at play within international relations, but none more so than the current role the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has in South Asia. Sir Halford Mackinder explained the Heartland Theory in “The Geographical Pivot of History” in 1904. Whichever nation controlled Eastern Europe would control the Heartland (the core of Eurasia); subsequently this nation would then control the World Island (all of Europe and Asia); and finally, would dominate the world. Alfred Thayer Mahan’s view was focused upon the oceans. Simply, whoever conquered the seas would control the world. Both have proven true throughout history, but not at the same time with the same nation. The partnership of Mackinder and Mahan’s theories are found within the PRC’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) project.
The OBOR is the world’s largest economic endeavor involving over 60 nations and more than 4.4 billion people. It was first mentioned by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013. He figuratively discussed it in his 2015 statement at the UN. A major component of this speech was his claim of “win-win” situations all over the world. This new silk road would open unfettered pathways to Europe, Africa, and ultimately Latin America. According to Scott Kennedy of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the OBOR will “include promotion of enhanced policy coordination across the Asian continent, financial integration, trade liberalization, and people-to-people connectivity.” This project is not without its political implications for South Asia as well. If China is successful in its goals, they will prove both geopolitical theories as symbiotic, and become the new superpower.
India and China have been significant rivals in South Asia for centuries, whether in politics, economics, militarily, or religion. The US has bolstered the former, being the world’s largest democracy, and has aided in its development and transformation into an economic center and regional influencer. On the other hand, the PRC is clearly Asia’s economic powerhouse with tremendous ambition to Sinicize. Lately, it seems China’s authority has transcended that of India, as seen in Pakistan, Nepal, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.
The One Belt: China’s Heartland
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a venture that will benefit Pakistan tremendously as it struggles with an increasing younger generation, limited social opportunities, and greater radicalization. The CPEC website outlines several projects. The PRC financed four railways: the Karachi Circular completed in May 2017, the Greater Peshawar Region and Orange Line in Lahore are under construction and Quetta is in the feasibility process. In addition to rail, China funded three roads and one canal projects. In the Punjab Province, an iron mining and steel processing plan is underway. The heart of Deng Xiaoping’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics” was Special Economic Zones (SEZs). China is in various stages developing nine of these within Pakistani urban areas. They will be connected to rail, road, waterways, as well as airports. The SEZs involve a multitude of industries including produce, textiles, pharmaceuticals, appliances, and agricultural machinery. Chinese SEZs boosted its economy and will do the same for Pakistan. In retaliation to a January tweet by President Trump, the Pakistani Central Bank declared it officially adopted the Yuan, only strengthening a solid trade between the two nations. These numerous economic outcomes are obviously necessary for a growing younger generation. Nevertheless, they also need educational and social opportunities. Knowing this, the PRC is funding a university, a business school, and various opportunities for the two countries to exchange cultures. With less poverty and greater prospects, perhaps fewer men will turn to radicalization. The safety of thousands of Chinese nationals living and working in Pakistan is also of concern to Beijing. The PRC has already pressured Pakistan to do more to counter terrorism. The CPEC is clearly a win-win economically, socially and politically.
Nepal has been a geopolitical pawn of two powerful Asian nations. Today is no different, although they are leaning closer to China than India. The recent election of Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli proves this stronger relationship. According to a South China Post article, “Nepal’s new communist prime minister will restart a Chinese-led US$2.5 billion hydropower project that was pulled by the previous government considered friendly towards India, and wants to increase infrastructure connectivity with Beijing to ease the country’s reliance on New Delhi.” Previously Nepali internet access came from Indian companies. In January that changed with China Telecom Global taking the lead. In addition, Beijing will help build the first railway, over the Himalayas into Nepal. Beijing is also trying to reduce Nepal’s dependency on India for trade. When a 2015 Indian blockade of Nepali roads ensued, they looked to China for help. Although China could not provide all the nation’s fuel needs, it opened significant talks between the two. In a landmark decision, Nepal will now have ocean access via the Chinese port city, Tianjin, not just ports in India. This allows for greater third-party trade, especially with those nations restricted by trade in India. Interestingly, these infrastructure projects come at the same time the PRC has encouraged the two Nepali communist parties to merge and become stronger. Again, both nations appear to enjoy win-win scenarios in economics and politics.
The One Road: China’s Maritime Influence
The transformation of Chinese influence in the Maldives has been interesting. Malé only recently acquired a Chinese embassy in 2011. Since then, Chinese presence has been powerful. Gateway House of India explained the PRC has more than 20 government and privately-sponsored projects “ranging from big infrastructure (airport, bridge), housing, hotels and urban infrastructure.” The three greatest is estimated at over $1.5B, putting the islands into even greater debt. The most significant economic opportunity in the Maldives is tourism, and China sends the most vacationers. Strategically, Beijing is now closer than ever. As the political crisis in the Maldives unfolds, both China and India are vying for power and influence. According to The Maritime Executive, Chinese warships entered the Indian Ocean on February 20—the same day President Yameen extended another 30-day state of emergency. The chaos involved, whether it is Yameen’s directive to revert to the former one-party system or India’s claim that warships did not arrive, has given Beijing more authority. In this volatile environment, it is too early to tell who will benefit from these win-win policies.
Solely because of size, Sri Lanka is the stronger of the two island nations when it comes to Indian Ocean shipping. Knowing this, Beijing invested billions into various infrastructure projects. The Diplomat reported, “Chinese funds have been channeled into roads, airports, and sea ports, the two highest profile initiatives being the Hambantota Port Development and the Colombo Port Project.” In December, the PRC was granted a 99-year lease for Hambantota. Some analysts predict it may become a naval base, while others speculate it is purely for trade. Chinese presence is also noted in telecommunications. Anti-Chinese protests ensued as unions were unhappy with the lease. Huawei, China’s largest cellular phone manufacturer, is the second largest producer in Sri Lanka. Like the Maldives, a Free Trade Agreement was signed in 2017. Reduced tariffs will allow a greater flow of Chinese products. Despite the union clashes, it seems there will also be win-win situations among Sino-Sri Lankan relations.
There are many questions to be asked. Is China’s economic might wining over democratic principles? Does India’s Modi have fences to mend? The Hambantota protests were the first against Chinese investment, will they be the last, or will be the norm? Should the US do more to protect Indian interests? When the US pulled out of the Transpacific Partnership (TPP), did the geopolitics of Makinder and Mahan aid in China’s ambition to becoming a new superpower? Time will only tell.
Jennifer Loy is a Research Associate for Nepal Matters for America. She holds MS in International Relations.
This piece was later published by Real Clear Defense.