China may be shifting its South Asia strategy

Beijing more willing to pressure Islamabad to eliminate possible threats to China or Chinese citizens, says report to US Congress

A file photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Photo: AFP
A file photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Photo: AFP

China’s security concerns in South Asia have historically centred on its desire to ensure Pakistan is capable of thwarting India’s rise as a challenger to China’s dominance in broader Asia. But the rise of terrorism as a major perceived threat to China’s security may be prompting a shift in this calculus, says a new report to the US Congress on US-China relations.

The report by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, submitted to the US Congress earlier this month, also talks about the rapid spread of Chinese influence in and around South Asia—traditionally seen as India’s sphere of influence—in the past decade. China’s “One Belt, One Road” connectivity initiative is gaining traction in South Asia, it says.

“China is actively engaged in cultivating influence in South Asian countries (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka),” although China does not publicly articulate a formal South Asia “strategy”, it says.

Key Chinese interests and concerns in South Asia fall into four broad categories, says the report which lists, “checking India’s rise, primarily by exploiting the India-Pakistan rivalry,” as the first priority of China. “The overall balance of power between China and India currently is in China’s favour, and Beijing intends to keep it that way. China’s primary mechanism in this regard is its support for Pakistan,” says the report.

Other Chinese priorities in South Asia include “expanding economic activity and influence in the region, enhancing access to the Indian Ocean, and countering terrorism and religious extremism” often at the expense of religious freedom and human rights, the report observes.

As the threat of extremism and terrorism facing China grows, “counterterrorism has become an increasingly important facet of Beijing’s engagement with South Asia,” the report says. “In recent years, Beijing has been more willing to increase pressure on Islamabad to take steps to eliminate any Pakistan-based activities that could potentially be directed at China or Chinese citizens abroad,” the report states.

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