NEW DELHI: An important study that collected data over a period of eight years in six South and Central Asian countries—Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, The Maldives, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan—to assess and analyse China’s growing influence through its public diplomacy efforts has said that recipient countries need to find ways to protect their interests and not let Beijing’s economic clout translate into political leverage.
The warning comes in the report titled ‘Silk Road Diplomacy: Deconstructing Beijing’s toolkit to influence South and Central Asia’ which was released in the Capital on Tuesday. The report is the outcome of research done by AiDData, the Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI) and the China Power Project of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
The report says that researchers collected an “unprecedented amount of qualitative and quantitative data on Beijing’s public diplomacy in the SCA region from 2010 to 2018”. It has quantified China’s public diplomacy efforts by drawing up a list of five toolkits—cultural diplomacy (Confucius Institutes and classrooms), exchange diplomacy (sister city tie-ups), elite-to-elite diplomacy (visits by government officials), informal diplomacy (through engagement with the media) and financial diplomacy (Chinese funding for infrastructure projects, debt relief, etc).
For the report, researchers spoke to 216 individuals, among them officials, diplomats, academics, those from the private sector, etc to get an insight into Chinese moves in south and central Asia. As for the study’s findings with regard to four close neighbours of India—Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and The Maldives—it notes that “Beijing is a partner of convenience for four South Asian countries, with deep pockets to bankroll priority infrastructure projects and growing economic clout to offset their dependence on India (Samaranayake 2019; Pant 2018; Marlow 2019)”.
It further says that “Beijing’s preference for negotiating backroom deals, Chinese companies collusion with local politicians for private gain, and cautionary tales of debt distress have stoked public debate and, in some cases, regime change.”
Here is what the Silk Road report details on Beijing’s attempts to wield influence in the countries in India’s immediate neighbourhood:
The economic blockade in 2015 still rankles the Nepalese. The report says “Nepalis recent impression of New Delhi is largely shaped by the pain of the economic blockade, while Beijing has positioned itself for greater influence with minimal effort.”
It further says that Nepal sees the engagement with China as something that will help “kickstart Nepal’s sluggish economy through more tourists, investments, jobs and cheap electronics”. Many among those interviewed also said that this has led to more and more Nepalese choosing to learn Mandarin and to visit or study in China.
The report also says that the Nepalese perception of China is also “shaped by events Nepalis view as mis-steps by India, namely three economic blockades (1977, 1988, 2015) and India’s interference in domestic politics” It notes that the dissatisfaction with India is that “Indian politicians and bureaucrats (are) seen as behaving heavy-handedly with smaller neighbours.”
As for China, the report says “Beijing has positioned itself as bringing the ‘gift of development to Nepal’”. However, the report draws attention to the fact that the going has not been all rosy for Beijing’s financial diplomacy, with roadblocks having come up both in the lead up to the BRI which Nepal joined in 2017 and its aftermath.
There has been slow implementation of projects with those interviewed saying “Chinese officials have been frustrated by Kathmandu’s lack of focus—a laundry list of ideas and yet lack of shovel-ready projects which along with delays in bringing in Chinese labourers has contributed to a slower than anticipated rollout of new projects”.
In another interesting observation, the report says that “Beijing is still most comfortable and prolific in cultivating relationships with political elites; however, it is becoming more sophisticated in efforts to win over the broader Nepali public”.
The report also highlights the financial muscle the Chinese have used to woo Nepal. Over a seven-year period (2010-2017) “Beijing has bankrolled US $985 million worth of financial diplomacy investments,” says the report. There have also been a growing number of political visits. “There were 114 recorded political visits between Chinese and Nepali leaders and 15 party-to-party visits, the most of any SCA country in the 2010-2017 period,” says the report quoting figures collated from the China Foreign Affairs Yearbooks.
Chinese tentacles have spread wide in Nepal’s education sector. The number of Nepalese students choosing to study in China is growing. The report says their numbers have increased from 813 in 2002 to 6,394 by 2017. Also, between 2010 and 2018, China awarded 1,070 scholarships to Nepalese youth. It also says that those interviewed for the report said that “Beijing targets the preponderance of this assistance toward the children of important political, military and business families in Nepal”.
Opportunities to learn Mandarin in Nepal are also increasing with the language being offered for study in the Confucius Institute in Kathmandu University; another such institute is set to open in Tribhuwan University. The Chinese embassy offers free courses to learn Mandarin. A growing number of private schools too are offering Mandarin classes, says the report.
“The frustration of Bangladeshi citizens and elites with India has arguably opened the doors for Beijing,” says the Silk Road report. It adds, “Interviewees characterised the relationship between Bangladesh and India as “big brother” versus “little brother” with Bangladeshis resenting India for interfering excessively in the country’s internal affairs and playing hydro-politics by holding back water from rivers flowing through its territories before reaching Bangladesh.”
While all this may be old hat, the report says that policymakers in Dhaka remain mindful of Indian concerns about growing Chinese inroads in Bangladesh and therefore moderate their engagement with Beijing. In this context, the report cites Bangladesh’s refusal to give the Chinese proposals for Chittagong and Sonadia ports the go-ahead. However, in a balancing act it gave the Japanese the nod for the Matabari port project, says the report.
As for Chinese efforts in financial diplomacy, the report says that between 2000 and 2017, 99 per cent of its overtures have been for infrastructure projects worth US $10.2 billion in and around the capital city Dhaka. Those spoken to as part of the research said that the Bangladesh government is “well attuned to the importance of Beijing as a partner to help the country achieve its economic objective through investments in primary infrastructure as well as a counter-balance to New Delhi”.
While Bangladesh looks to Chinese funding for its infrastructure, concerns remain about “little transparency around Chinese government-backed projects in a country that is already battling endemic corruption,” says the report quoting Transparency International.
The Chinese quest to build influence via goodies or junkets for the powerful or the decision-makers in countries is well known. In the context of Bangladesh, the report notes: “Beijing purportedly targets influencers across political party lines and at various levels of seniority with “five-star junkets” to China to build relationships and impress these special guests with China’s development stories. Business leaders are another target audience for these trips as Beijing aims to cultivate friendly relations with those in positions to facilitate Bangladesh-China investment opportunities”.
An astute Beijing also maintains ties that are “proactive” with the two leading political parties of this country—Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Fortunately for India, the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League government “continues to tread slowly and cautiously lest its friendship with Beijing provoke a negative response from New Delhi”.
The Chinese also seek to gain influence among the country’s media. The report notes that those interviewed said Beijing’s journalist exchange programmes was one if its “most potent tools to shape the media narrative in Bangladesh”.
Bangladesh has three Confucius Institutes and they are popular among Bangladeshi students seeking to learn Mandarin in order to find employment with Chinese companies, says the report. These institutes also promote opportunities to study in China and even letters of recommendation to students. “This outreach may have helped stoke demand: there was a 35-fold increase in Bangladeshi students studying in China from 206 in 2006 (when the first CI was opened) to 7,343 in 2017.
Sri Lanka, the strategically located Indian Ocean island nation, has been an integral part of Chinese efforts to increase its sphere of influence in the region.
The report says “infrastructure financing and courting elites are Beijing’s go-to strategies in Sri Lanka, but it is also experimenting with ways to promote people-to-people ties at a smaller scale”.
The report notes that the bankrolling of infrastructure projects has been a major component of Beijing’s overtures to Colombo. It says that between 2010 and 2017, China committed as much as US $12.2 billion with the lion’s share of 94 per cent apportioned for new or existing infrastructure. This funding from Beijing meant that between 2005 and 2015, 70 per cent of the island nation’s infrastructure projects were funded and built by Beijing, the report notes.
The controversial Hambantota port was given to the Chinese on a 99-year lease after Sri Lanka found itself grappling with the debt burden of the loan it had taken for the project.
The report notes that in 2010, China built a cricket stadium, an airport and a highway along with Hambantota port. These, says the report, were built at an “accelerated pace to coincide with President Rajapaksa’s birthday”. The reference is to Mahinda, present Sri Lankan President Gotabaya’s elder brother.
By 2012, the report says the port and related projects “were minimally used and unprofitable, while the government struggled to repay its debts and ultimately handed over to Beijing 269 hectares of land on a 99-year-lease. Importantly, the report also says, “graft has also been a concern in the light of the opacity of loan terms and awarding of contracts which hinders oversight”.
In the political arena, the report takes note of Beijing’s outreach to the Sri Lankan leadership. “Chinese leaders have emphasised cultivating personal relationships with Sri Lankan officials,” the report notes. It also reveals that between 2000 and 2017, there were 102 visits exchanged between leaders of both countries at the national and provincial levels.
Yet another strategically located Indian Ocean island nation that has been the recipient of Beijing’s focused attention in recent years.
According to the Silk Road report “Beijing’s influence with Maldivian political elites benefited from two inflection points: the 2003 tsunami and President Yameen’s vision for infrastructure-led growth.”
When the tsunami hit The Maldives, opening up his tiny country became a necessity for then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom says the report. Thus, Beijing got the “window of opportunity” with the Chinese stepping in with grants for post-tsunami relief and reconstruction.
Under current President Ibu Solih, the report says “Beijing is not back to square one but it must now share the stage as the Maldives courts a broader cast of development partners”. Under his predecessor Abdulla Yameen, the Maldives had shown a marked pro-China tilt to New Delhi’s great dismay.
The report says that most people spoken to, regardless of their party allegiance, “strongly believed that it was in the Maldives best interest to have balanced relations with all the major powers.”
The report also notes that while the Solih government has not cancelled any projects funded by China, officials maintain they “reserve the right to review them”.
The report also observes that China’s “willingness to bankroll US $1.58 billion in projects between 2005 and 2017, 99 per cent of which are infrastructure investments, is, by far, its most visible public diplomacy tool in the Maldives.”
While the political elites of the Maldives value Beijing’s ability “to supply money and expertise to complete public infrastructure projects quickly” the private sector feels that “there is no trickle down to the local economy”, the report says.