Chinese president Xi Jinping is on the march, laying the groundwork for a highly integrated Asia with China at the center. Over the past year, Xi, along with Premier Li Keqiang, has been touting the region as Beijing’s number one foreign policy priority—a shift that moves the United States out of the top spot. Of course East Asia—including Southeast Asia—has long been a target of China’s affection: it is the economic jewel of the broader Asia Pacific. Central Asia, in turn, has occupied the most critical position in China’s security thinking. And now South Asia appears poised to assume its own unique role in China’s vision of an integrated Asia.
Throughout a ten-day trip to India and China, my colleagues, Alyssa Ayres and Dan Markey, and I heard discussion of South Asia as a significant element in China’s regional economic and security plans. As Alyssa details in her post, there are a number of new economic and security organizations under development that engage some or all parts of the region, including a new BRICS bank, an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and a security based accord, “The Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia.” These efforts are further complemented by the grand-scale new Silk Route (which will run from central China through Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, ending in Italy) and Maritime Silk Route that will follow a path from coastal China through to the Malacca Strait, north around the horn of African through the Red Sea and concluding in the Mediterranean. There are also more narrowly constructed regional economic development plans such as the China-Pakistan corridor and the Bangladesh-Myanmar-India-China corridor.
While most Chinese officials and analysts with whom we met were quite enthusiastic about Beijing’s prospects for both economic and security cooperation in the region, there were cautionary notes. Discussions with a Chinese trade official, for example, highlighted the propensity of Chinese investment to cause as many problems on the political front as benefits on the economic front for Beijng. The official noted that there is a tendency for Chinese officials and businesspeople to engage only with senior government officials in host countries and assume that they will enforce any investment deal that is reached. The Chinese often have only a poor understanding of the situation on the ground and thus are ill equipped to deal with local communities who are not on board with Chinese plans. In this regard, the official commented that India was a strong competitor for China, offering better language, cultural, and public relations capacity in host countries.
There is also the possibility that other countries will balk at Beijing’s extensive integration plans. Although nominally of benefit to the entire region, at least one Chinese scholar commented that it would be extremely important for other countries to realize explicitly the benefits of the integration effort—it could not be perceived as simply serving China’s interests. In Myanmar, for example, the $20 billion Kyaukpyu-Kunming railway project that Beijing had planned to run from Yunnan through Myanmar all the way to the Bay of Bengal is in danger of cancellation by the Burmese. This could sharply limit China’s ability to complete the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor. India may also prove a more challenging partner than many in Beijing anticipate. As Alyssa notes in her post, there is substantial concern among Indian officials and analysts over the border dispute. And in general, while the Indians we met were enthusiastic about enhancing the Sino-Indian economic relationship, they were far more concerned about China’s broader political and security intentions than the Chinese seemed to understand.
Then there is the United States. Here there was mostly cautious optimism. Some Chinese analysts saw significant opportunities for cooperation, highlighting the potential for the United States and China as “outside powers” to shape regional security. As Dan notes in his post, the Chinese are concerned about the security outlook in Afghanistan, particularly after the U.S. troop withdrawal. A number of Chinese viewed security in Afghanistan as a likely fruitful area for U.S.-China cooperation, although at least one suggested that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization would have to be included in such discussions.
Overall, the Chinese outlook on the future of the region was long term and patient. In discussions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, the concern and urgency that mark discussion and debate in Washington were noticeably missing. At least one Pakistani official based in Beijing clearly appreciates the approach, noting that in contrast to the United States, “China gives advice but no pressure.”