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China in South Asia's New Strategic Quadrangle

  • Evan Feigenbaum

“More than a China Story”: China, South Asia and Broader Asian Connectivity

Evan Feigenbaum, Vice Chairman of the Paulson Institute, spoke about the changing security and economic landscape across Asia – a region that is becoming increasingly reintegrated economically even while experiencing continued security fragmentation. This split between geopolitical tensions and economic integration can be seen in nearly every major bilateral relationship, Feigenbaum noted, including between China and Japan, China and India, and China and the United States. Feigenbaum gave his remarks as part of China Program’s Winter Colloquium series in a talk titled  “China in South Asia’s New Strategic Quadrangle” on February 21, 2017.

Feigenbaum argued that while growing economic rapprochement is obviously a key aspect of contemporary relations between China and India – and the current focus of pundits and the media – China and India are, nevertheless, operating according to their own security calculus. Thus, although China’s foreign policy towards South Asia has been primarily driven by its domestic need for control in Tibet and its Western border regions, China has maintained strong relations with Pakistan to counterbalance India in the subcontinent. Today, India and China are increasingly engaged in bilateral trade and investments and have negotiated a provisional border settlement, which enables better relations. Yet, China’s increasing economic involvement in countries that have traditionally lain within India’s sphere of influence; and China’s close relationship with Pakistan all cause India’s continuing caution and ambivalence towards China. India and China’s status as two neighboring nuclear powers, furthermore, intensifies security concerns. Thus, for India, China can never be viewed as a neutral security player in South Asia, according to Feigenbaum..

Feigenbaum then turned to China’s increasing economic presence in South Asia, which has brought an unprecedented dynamic to its roles and relationships in the region. He cautioned against viewing China’s investment around South Asia as “just a China story,” however, but rather as part of a broader history of connectivity in Asia as a whole. Thus, while the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) is often perceived of “as [China] going solo as a kind of Chinese vehicle,” it involves major financing by other countries. It also deliberately partners with other multilateral banks like the Asian Development Bank in order to learn and absorb international best practices. While the New Silk Road, too, may look like a wholecloth invention of Xi Jinping’s P.R.C., Feigenbaum recounted that many players throughout Asia have been discussing this basic idea over several decades. Asian connectivity “is going to be the product of demand side pull and lender push and [the] product of actions and choices of many Asian countries,” he asserted, including but not limited to that of China. Although the scope and scale of China’s economic presence in the region cannot be ignored, infrastructure construction, foreign direct investments, and international commerce will be, thus, “more than a China story.”

Feigenbaum concluded his remarks by considering how reactions to China’s move into South Asia have impacted the external calculations of countries within South Asia and, in particular, India. For Narendra Modi, Chinese investment presented an opportunity that he could harness to promote India’s own growth agenda. Moreover, “the idea that India represents some kind of existential balance to a rising China will remain perceptively attractive to a lot of countries in Asia, and  . . . to the United States,” stated Feigenbaum.

Feigenbaum lastly noted the U.S.’ relative absence from Asia’s economic reconstitution even as China takes on a larger presence. He also highlighted what he saw as a significant flaw in the U.S.’ own foreign policymaking toward Asia, which tends to examine the entire area not as an integrated whole but as sub-regions – i.e., South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia and Central Asia -- positioned contiguously. He encouraged U.S. policymakers to reconceive their approach and consider a coordinated execution of strategy across all of Asia. Such an integrated approach will become increasingly necessary, he asserted, as China’s presence in the region grows economically and geopolitically.

While not diminishing China’s growing importance to the region, Feigenbuam’s remarks reminded listeners that a wider perspective is necessary to begin to piece together the myriad factors and dynamics that will shape South Asia in the years to come.