There can be no doubt about China’s growing clout in South Asia. When governments are being made and unmade by a not-so-invisible hand in Beijing, it should be clear that China’s footprint is at an all-time high.
It has been evident for some time now that states in South Asia and the wider Indian Ocean region cannot remain immune from the lure of Chinese political and economic muscle, much like the rest of the world. If, despite bilateral challenges, India can try to get the best bargain out of China by engaging in trade and other sorts of cooperation, so can its neighbours. It’s infantile to cry hoarse about smaller states trying to make the best of their regional environment.
Yet, strategic evolution is a constant and as 2020 came to end, China seemed to be facing an interesting scrutiny about its role in South Asia from various quarters. In an embarrassing expose last month, the National Directorate of Security of Afghanistan arrested Chinese intelligence agents engaged with Pakistani agents and members of the Taliban as well as the Haqqani network in order to promote “Beijing’s geopolitical influence in the region”. They were later allowed to leave Kabul but only after China was reportedly asked to apologise for sending in these agents.
That China and Pakistan would collude in Afghanistan is not news, but what is important is the new reality confronting China today that as it becomes more proactive in shaping its regional environment, the façade of promoting peace and prosperity will quickly wear off.