Naina Singh was a Research Intern at ICS and is pursuing MPhil at Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament (CIPOD), School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Although a lot has been said about China’s unique economic engagement with ASEAN countries, this article attempts to focus on China’s ‘forum tactics’ towards South Asia as part of its so-called ‘win-win cooperation’. China has constantly utilized the institutional platforms of ASEAN to channelize its growing economic interest in the region. The China-ASEAN Free Trade Area has established its own benchmark and now China seems ready to focus on South Asia – stretching from Afghanistan to Myanmar.
Why South Asia?
In the initial years, China’s interest in South Asia was more strategic than economic. Pakistan’s longstanding military, economic and political partnership with China is a prime example and one which continues with platforms such as the Quadrilateral Coordination Group on the Afghan Peace and Reconciliation process, for instance. Though China’s major interest still lies in the stability of Afghanistan and Pakistan, economic interests in the region for energy and trade are catching up. With the rise of the Chinese economy, South Asia is a destination for Chinese capital and as well as a market for Chinese goods. With its natural resources and potential transit routes, South Asia raises new hopes for sustaining China’s economic growth.
During his visit to Pakistan in April 2015, Chinese president Xi Jinping stated that ‘China is the largest neighbour of South Asian countries, and a peaceful, stable and prosperous South Asia conforms to China’s interest’. The membership of India and Pakistan in the China-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in 2016 reflects China’s major shift towards South Asia. China has also stepped up its interest in the region through regional cooperation initiatives such as BCIM (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar) and the ‘one belt, one road’ vision. China is eager to exploit the trade, transport and energy opportunities within the region and how it strategizes to do it, is discussed in the following sections.
Forums at Play: Different Combinations, Same Destination
Chinese diplomats are extremely savvy in utilizing Track 2 and Track 1.5 diplomacy.. A prime example is that of the 2nd Trans-Himalayan Development Forum recently held on 12 July 2016 in Mangshi, Yunnan. The forum involved experts and scholars from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and China. Organised by the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations and a local prefectural government in Yunnan province, the forum aims to enhance connectivity, innovation and sustainable development in the region. In 2014, then Chinese Ambassador to New Delhi, Wei Wei had proposed the idea of a ‘Trans-Himalayan Economic Growth Region’ to push for the better connectivity in the region.
The Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, one of the major foreign affairs organizations of China is also active in organizing forums with Chinese and other South Asian universities and organizations. The China-South Asia Cultural Forum, established in 2013 is one such platform which involves experts and government representatives from the region and China to discuss problems of economic and trade development, cross-border infrastructure for cultural and educational cooperation. Similarly, the third round of the China-South Asia Friendship Organizations’ Forum in 2013 in Kunming, Yunnan was dedicated ‘to establish[ing] new channels and modes for China-South Asia cooperation in culture, tourism and trade’. Call it ‘culturalization’ of the economy or call it the ‘economization of culture’, China is prepared to monetize every connecting dot in its multilateralism.
China is not only investing thought into potential functional areas of cooperation but also reconsidering the level of cooperation – whether this should be national or provincial. China’s forum diplomacy towards South Asia involves the active participation mainly of China’s Yunnan province while keeping out the troubled regions of Tibet and Xinjiang. In 2013, China’s Ministry of Commerce and the provincial government of Yunnan organized the first China-South Asia Expo, which now works as the umbrella institution for Track 1.5 economic diplomacy. Under the ambit of the Expo, through China-SAARC Economic and Trade Forum (begun in 2013) and the China-South Asia Business Forum (begun in 2006), regional economic cooperation is being promoted. The China-South Asia Business Forum is considered to be the first of its type to enhance economic cooperation and since its creation the trade volume between South Asia and China have increased from US$30 billion in 2007 to US$93 billion in 2012.
In June 2015, the first forum on China-South Asia Technology Transfer and Collaborative Innovation was established to explore further cooperation in technology innovation and sustainable development. The forum is envisaged as bringing together government officials working on science and technology issues, and industry, academia and related stakeholders. For actively engaging knowledge-communities in creating the base for economic development, the government of Yunnan has also begun co-hosting the China-South Asia Think-Tank Forum together with central government agencies. The Forum’s objective is ‘to enhance the mutual understanding of Chinese and South Asian academic circles and discuss the future role of think tanks in promoting bilateral and multilateral relations’. Among the topics on which the Think-Thank Forum is expected to deliberate, economic and trade cooperation tops the list followed by regional connectivity and global cultural exchanges.
Balancing It All?
China with its intractable image in the neighbourhood has thus, been sharp enough to institutionalize platforms to encash opportunity through persuasion rather than arm-twisting. Unlike the United States, Chinese economic diplomacy in South Asian is less about coercion and more about setting economic preferences through multilateral engagement which are not only regional but sub-regional, too.
American scholar Joshep Nye states that ‘intangible assets’ such as institutions with their legitimate and moral authority are instrumental in establishing preferences. China with its observer status in SAARC and its regular convening of forums and conferences on various themes is utilizing the opportunities thus provided to pave a path in its national economic interest and to politically woo its South Asian neighbourhood. China indeed has planned a step ahead to strategize its economic diplomacy with its South Asian neigbhours. These multilateral agreements allow Chinese capital to regionalize without hegemonic shadows while acknowledging Yunnan’s greater agency on the external front is another way of smoothening suspicions abroad.
 Track 2 diplomacy primarily involves non-governmental representations and interactions among the states. While track 1.5 diplomacy refers to the engagement of both government and informal representations work together to engage with the other states.