The String of Pearls is an ominous noose that tightens around India's neck with each passing day. There's no respite from the Dragon's stiffening clutch. The thrust and parry between China and India for dominance in South Asia has obviously become a lopsided geopolitical game. The latest in a series of strategic coups Beijing has pulled off is its apparent victory in convincing the Afghans to let it open a military base there.
China's bid to encircle India with strategic military and naval assets across South and Southeast Asia is old news. The 'string of pearls' theory cropped up in 2005, referring to the expanding network of military and naval assets China was building in Indian Ocean countries.
The Gwadar port in Pakistan, the upcoming Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, the military base in Djibouti, Chittagong port in Bangladesh and the Dragon's increasing footprint in Maldives, Nepal and Myanmar have all been the results of China's overarching ambition to clip India's wings.
However, the 'loyal' Afghanistan remained largely on India's side, partially since Kabul sought a counterweight against China's inseparable strategic closeness with Pakistan. In fact, among all its immediate neighbours, Afghanistan remained India's the sole strategic ally. Of course, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have been within the Indian sphere of influence for long but New Delhi has been ceding ground to China.
The loss of Afghanistan to direct Chinese influence has probably not been factored in yet. There were reports earlier this month that China was building a military base in Pakistan close to the Chabahar port in Iran. Chabahar was jointly developed by Iran, India and Afghanistan and holds crucial strategic importance for India. The latest reports say China is acquiring a Pak military base near Chabahar.
Why is China's grip tightening across South Asia? Does it have active military goals in the garb of commercial interests? Is China pushing heavily into South Asia in response to India's increasing interest in Southeast Asia? Can India match Chinese offers in its immediate vicinity and counter the spread of its sphere of influence? Should India stand down on its push and shove in Southeast Asia or rather ramp it up?
Chinese military and strategic experts have often gloated that Beijing's increasing show of might in South Asia is in response to India's misguided outings in Southeast Asia. They specifically mention India's military drills near the Strait of Malacca, which is crucial to China's energy security, and its participation in the South China Sea drill alongside the US, Japan and Australia.
Or is it just about China's economic might and its bulging war chest beating India hands down? China invested more than $55 billion in Pakistan in recent years. In Nepal, as part of the One Belt One Road Initiative, China is funnelling as much as $8 billion into the infrastructure and other key sectors. This largesse should be compared with Nepal's gross domestic product, which was just above $21 billion in 2016 as per the World Bank.
China loaned more than $8 billion to Sri Lanka over the years and the island nation finally found it impossible to pay it off. The result was the blunt takeover of the key Hambantota port. Late last year, China forced a 99-year lease agreement on the Sri Lankans. Separately, China's state-run China Harbour Engineering Company is investing $1 billion in the Colombo Port City project.
Hambantota, which is known as the heart of Indian ocean, is the most priced real estate in the region from a military strategy point of view. The Sri Lankans have 'assured' India that China doesn't have plans to militarise the port in future, but 99 years is a long way to go.
Not to be forgotten is the telecommunication coup China pulled off in Nepal this year. In a major cause of concern for India, China Telecom virtually took over the Internet in the country by activating terrestrial link to the country that once depended on India for connectivity.
The string of naval and infrastructure projects China has undertaken all along India's neighbourhood has the stamp of Chinese money on it. Look at the GDP growth rate in Afghanistan. It was lower than 1 percent in 2007 according to the Asian Development Bank. The projection for 2018 is 1 percent growth. ADB's growth projection for Sri Lanka in 2018 is 4.7 percent and for Maldives it's 1.8 percent. Nepal's economy is projected to expand only 4.7 percent and Bangladesh 5.5 percent.
Smaller South Asian nations have a big growth and investment deficit and Chinese money is flowing in to fill the vacuum. And it's no secret that China cares less for doctrinal and moral scruples. It didn't condemn the racial attacks on the Myanmar Rohingya last year, apparently throwing its weight behind the government that allowed it to build a serpentine gas pipeline in the strife-torn Rakhine state. It could be remembered that during the Sudan civil war in the last decade, China surreptitiously aided the Janjaweed militia with weapons, defying international sanctions.
In the matter of the Afghan military base, China will invariably put a counter-terror spin, but India cannot but be wary of its real intentions. An Afghan base might help China in pushing back against the Central Asian radical Islamic modules that vitiate the already strained atmosphere in Xinjiang but for India, the development is a precursor to the eventual loss of its only real strategic ally in the region.