Beijing's growing influence in South Asia: The Statesman columnist

A PAC JF-17 Thunder multirole combat aircraft, conceived and initially developed with the help of China, in Karachi on December 3, 2014.
A PAC JF-17 Thunder multirole combat aircraft, conceived and initially developed with the help of China, in Karachi on December 3, 2014. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (THE STATESMAN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - There was a somewhat sensational media report on June 23 - "Pak, China readying J-17 fighter jets for Myanmar" - on the basis of a photograph of a "JF-17/FC-1 Fierce Dragon" fighter aircraft with the insignia of Myanmar Air Force.

It was conducting a test flight in the Chinese airfield of Chengdu, and thus conveyed the impression that it might be inducted by Myanmar, fulfilling Pakistan's ambition to emerge as the leading South Asian arms exporter.

Actually, the emerging scenario is neither new nor utopian nor for that matter unexpected. It started long ago at China's behest.

It made a slow but steady progress under Beijing's supervision, and was subsequently emulated by Pakistan. Reason? India is the common adversary.

What is surprising is that successive establishments in Delhi have been dumbing down the issue owing to its inability to put in place a defence production programme.

The government has also failed to provide the basic military hardware, such as tanks, aircraft and ships of (Indian make) to its Asian neighbours. This certainly was one of the main reasons for Delhi getting a "low rating" by its smaller neighbours despite the bigger shape, size, power and potential for development.

Delhi failed to take note of reality as it was unfolding in the neighbourhood.

In contrast, Chinese action can be compared to an old cliché - "run silent run deep".

Disadvantaged Beijing stumped advantaged Delhi in its own backyard. And despite its lack of core technical competence, China did display a measure of confidence and ingenuity and adroitly expanded beyond its border.

Beijing shrewdly blended "business" with "diplomatic defence hardware" and broadened the zone of its potential "vassal customers". The move virtually made the actual users of Chinese-made military machine heavily dependent on Beijing.

"Beyond visual range" of China brought dividend.

Thus, notwithstanding the lack of expertise to build modern, sophisticated naval assets for operating in the high seas, which at best could be referred to as a "coastal defence force", Beijing entered the "Bangladesh naval market" in the 1980s, taking full advantage of a "low" India Bangladesh bilateral.

Successive military dispensations of the post-Mujib era (after 1975) avoided India and nudged towards China.

Almost overnight, the Dhaka fleet turned around from the English Channel to the China Sea.

Beginning in 1982 with 136 ton full-load Shanghai II class and then in 1983 with 80 ton full-load Hegu class fast attack craft, Dhaka immensely benefited from the steady supply of Chinese ships.

This included 1496 ton full-load Hujiu class ocean tug (1984); 398 ton fullload Hainan class offshore patrol craft (1985); two 1955 ton fullload Jianghu III type frigate (1986 and 1987); four 208 ton full-load Huangfen class fast missile attack craft (1988); one 1729 ton fullload Jianghu I class frigate (1989).

What was only a trickle in the 20th century has turned into a Chinese torrent in the 21st century.

Four 648 ton full-load Houjian class missile attack craft are being commissioned between 2013 and 2018; four 1330 ton fullload C13B class frigates between 2016 and 2019 and two 2147 displacement ton (dived) Ming class submarine (2016-2018) virtually make Dhaka an extension and continuation of China's PLA Navy.

Indeed, China-made navy boats sail from Shanghai and Dalian, all the way to the port of Chittagong and Cox's Bazaar to strengthen the Bangladesh navy. This has exposed India's consistent failure to capitalise on a market next-door. Furthermore, it has weakened its eastern flank in front of a two-navy combination, should the security scenario deteriorate in future.

In the west too, the post-1971 naval scene, for India, changed dramatically in the trijunction of the Gulf of Oman, the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea.

With the robust entry of China, the Indian advantage definitely is on the wane. Thus, from a western fleet of American and British surface ships and a French submarine, Pakistan is steadily becoming a miniChina Navy.

Here too, Beijing started early, but cautiously. There was a certain clandestine US back-seat driving of Pakistan during the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan (1979-89) which coincided with the regime of dictator Zia-ul-Haq (1977-88).

The latter could run with the hare and hunt with the hound. Hence whereas Zia's land ordnance and air assets depended on western supplies, silently and stealthily he started inducting small, seemingly innocuous combat vessels from China.

In 1984, Pakistan acquired the 205 ton full-load Chinese version of Soviet Osa II class fast attack missile craft (a type which the Indian Navy successfully used to bombard Karachi harbour on 4 December 1971).

In 1986 again, China supplied Shanghai II class 131 full load fast attack gun craft. In 1987, China supplied the first 21750 ton full-load Fuqing class replenishment/supply ship to the Pakistan Navy. Though Zia was killed in a plane crash in August 1988, the foundation of China's entry into Pakistan's waters had been laid.

Its naval inventory now consists of four new 2980 ton full load Shanghai made Sword (F-22P) class frigates (inducted during 2009-13). It has also procured four Chinese made 224 ton full load Houbei class catamaran hulled fast attack craft. And more vessels are in the pipeline.

Regretfully, India did not do any better in southern Sri Lanka as China pre-empted Delhi as early as 1971 with the supply of five Shanghai II type fast attack gun craft to Colombo.

Indeed, throughout the 1990s Sri Lanka received a steady supply of high speed, highly-manoeuvrable fast attack craft from Israel and China to deal with insurgency which threatened to disintegrate the island state. Thus, India's indifference to stand by Colombo during a grave national crisis was fully exploited by Beijing to sail into South Asian waters thereby trespassing into Delhi's defence and diplomatic space.

By the time a belated supply of Hindustan Shipyard-built Sukanya class offshore patrol vessel to Sri Lanka was completed in 2000, Delhi's game in Colombo's security system was virtually over. In terms of diplomacy, India's monopoly status over Sri Lanka had also ended.

The shadow of the dragon now looms larger than before in eastern, western and now the southern sector of India.

What began as Chinese entry to South Asia through "defence hardware", has now turned full circle with the expansion of "economics software" through BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) and CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor).

Thus, India's policy miscalculation pertaining to its sea-neighbours has cost her the prime slot in collective geo-economic-security-strategy in South Asia. Beijing has trumped New Delhi ~ first in defence and now in socalled economics. Though it is late, it is never too late. All is not lost. Not yet.