India showed “will and capability to stand up to China” in the recent border conflict, said Lisa Curtis, senior director for South and Central Asia, US National Security Council. The rest of the Indo-Pacific countries are “watching this carefully” and have been “encouraged by India’s resolve.”
Curtis said this during a Brookings Institution webinar on Wednesday assessing China’s growing regional influence. India, she noted, had “played the economic card” by banning Chinese apps and putting a hold on Chinese investments.
“Thankfully,” she said, we are “beginning to see disengagement of forces” and “hoped it continues.” But the “pressure that China put on India on the Line of Actual Control” will have a long-term impact on how India views China and will “change the dynamics between the two.” An experienced South Asia hand who has served the US government in both India and Pakistan, Curtis said, “Few countries are more familiar with China’s malign influence than India.”
China’s “recent aggressive stance [in Ladakh] fits with the larger pattern of Chinese aggressiveness in other parts of the world.” Strengthening the US-India defence and security relationship has been a major element of Washington’s response and seeks to make India a “net security provider.” The relationship is more than just defence, she said, and cited the highlights of US President Donald Trump’s state visit to India in areas like economics and the present scientific collaboration in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic.
Twenty-five years ago China did not take India seriously, she said. India was seen as “inward-looking and lagging in its economic indicators.” Fifteen years ago, as India’s growth and military capabilities began taking off, there was a line of thinking that India and China would work together and “usher in a new Asian century.” From about 2010 or so differences over the long standing border dispute reemerged and each side became “uncomfortable” with the rise of the other. China’s influence in India’s neighbourhood, such as in Sri Lanka and Nepal, moved from economic to “more and more interference in domestic politics.”
Curtis said China’s influence in South Asia had grown significantly over the past 20 years. And Beijing’s actions were causing blowback. The Maldivian people had “pushed back” attempts by former president, Mohammed Yameen, to make his country dependent on Chinese debt by voting him out of office. Yameen had “awarded construction contracts to Chinese companies at inflated prices and without transparent bidding, leaving the Maldivian people with enormous debt.”
While the US had provided counterterrorism help to Sri Lanka after the 2019 Easter terrorist bombings, Beijing had “tried to obstruct Sri Lanka’s investigations and spread disinformation about US assistance.” Bangladesh was “carefully balancing” between China and the rest, but praised their acceptance of one million Rohingya refugees.
Nepal and Bhutan were examples of China disregarding the sovereignty of its neighbours. Chinese official media in May had claiming the the entirety of Mount Everest for China and, more recently, Beijing claiming a natural park in eastern Bhutan.
After discussing US attempts to roll back Chinese influence in Central Asia, Curtis mentioned Pakistan at the end of her written comments. “Nowhere in South and Central Asia has Chinese influence been more invasive than in Pakistan.” The $ 60 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor was neither aid nor an equity investment of the kind that had propelled China’s own growth. CPEC is being financed through sovereign debt which means the “risks are borne by the Pakistani people and the benefits accrue to China.” However, she cited Beijing and Washington’s common support for an end to violence in Afghanistan as evidence the two countries could work together and stressed the US had “deep and abiding respect for the Chinese people.”
India had been a sceptic of China’s Belt Road Initiative “from the beginning” and proven “very prescient” and its scepticism “was bearing out.” Countries in the region recovering from the pandemic should turn to international financial institutions to help their recovery or new US agencies like the Development Finance Corporation.
It was “disappointing” that Muslim majority countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh were not speaking out about China’s mass imprisonment of its Muslim Uighur and Kazakh minorities. The goal of US engagement in South and Central Asia, she said, was to allow them to “maintain their sovereignty and be able to make choices” in economic and other spheres.
Early in his presidency, she said, Trump had asked the NSC staff to reevaluate the assumptions behind the US’s China policy. She said, one assumption that was discarded was that greater engagement with China would lead to greater liberalisation. It was also concluded that China was exporting its coercive model to other parts of the world. The US reappraised its policy towards China and decided a “more competitive” relationship would test the resilience of US allies and partners and help resist Chinese actions that undermined US interests. “The US is more willing to risk in its relations with China,” Curtis said.
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