From Debt to political intrusion- China’s coercive strategies extending to South Asia

China’s economic rise has come at a significant cost for the global order. By indicating its intensions of altering the prevailing status quo not only regionally but also globally, Beijing has clearly outlined the future of its approach in claiming superpower status.

The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) tactics of burdening the under-developed world with hefty debts is a well understood strategy. However, what has majorly gone unnoticed in such a tactics, is the political implications such attempts have had on the host country. The Party, throughout recent years has been deploying strategies to have favourable political player leading the country which is in debt to its finances. These attempts have not only undermined the democratic value of the global order but has also proven to be detrimental to sovereignty of the state in question.

These strategies have been implemented through various ways, beginning with financial aid to candidates that inculcate a pro-China approach to directly meddling with democratic processes in such countries.

China’s detrimental strategy in South Aisa

South Asia, a region frequently known as India’s neighbourhood, too is facing a similar challenge at the behest of the CCP. Countries including Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, Sri Lanka as well as India have been at the receiving end of China’s propaganda machinery. From promoting pro-China candidates on social media platforms to providing the same candidates’ constituencies with development projects, the CCP’s strategies have diversified significantly in recent years.

Moreover, China’s flagship project the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has been known for its white elephant projects as well as its debt inducing loans, has burdened South Asian countries with enormous financial losses. Such vulnerable projects have in recent years created more problems for the host countries than it has solved critical issues the project promised to address.

By advancing economically unfeasible loans to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan, through the BRI, the CCP has also managed to gain a strong leverage over political decisions these countries take. Be it either agreeing to dock surveillance vessels in their ports or gaining access to critical infrastructure in these sensitive regions, China has expanded its parameters of influence in South Asia exponentially through its strategies.   

Bangladesh for instance, has excessive defence imports from Beijing. These kinds of trade must be proceeded with caution for the fact that China’s defence industry has been known to include surveillance equipment within its products in order to advance espionage activities.

China’s Propaganda Machinery

Furthermore, such strategies have only accelerated under Chinese President Xi Jinping. These tactics have the potential to undermine the sovereignty of the political systems that face attacks from the CCP’s propaganda machinery. Among the more prominent proponents of such a machinery is the United Front Work Department (UFWD), the official arm of the CCP that is mainly tasked to influence political activities. Understood to be the propaganda arm of the Party, the UFWD works with Chinese diasporas around the world as well as advocacy functionaries to advance its objectives in host countries. The Department has been known to use its state media as well as domestic outlets for advancing favourable narratives in spite of under-delivering on critical projects and promises.

Majorly, Beijing’s tactics have included coercion through economic means, advancing mis-information through social media platforms as well as directly seeking influence over political candidates through its financial support.  These are also enhanced by providing hefty donations to political parties that are seen to follow favourable Chinese policies.

Pathways forward for South Asia

In order to prevent such functionaries from interfering with democratic processes, especially in South Asia, it becomes all the more essential for like-minded countries in the region to come together and chart out a common path. Democratic states in the region must therefore restrict Beijing’s economic and political activities within their domestic state of affairs including completely banning Chinese finances during electoral campaigns. Moreover, such countries must also tread carefully when agreeing upon loan conditionalities for infrastructure projects, as Beijing has time and again proven to advance loans that turn to be detrimental for the country’s economy. Hence, the developing countries in the region must seek safer and reliable alternatives that provide better mechanisms instead of collaterals. Such strategies by the CCP have had significant impact on the region. There is perhaps no greater threat to South Asia than China’s intrusions both politically as well as economically. For the region to remain stable, Beijing’s headways must be limited and replaced with partners that are willing to advance aid without aiming to gain strategic leverage that China is so desperately seeking.