President Xi Jinping’s six-day South Asian trip is over. Apart from a series of bilateral agreements, friendly high-level dialogues and other interactions, the trip also demonstrated the direction of China’s South Asian policy. Indeed, with growing bilateral and multilateral interactions with South Asia, China is looking for a more flexible and comprehensive policy to accommodate the present situation, and to some extent, respond to the related arguments of China as a threat in the region.
Admittedly, one of the challenges for China’s current South Asian policy is how to address doubts about the motivations for China’s foreign policy in the region, in particular, India’s worries about the “China threat.” China has repeatedly stated that it is keen on promoting peaceful development and cooperation toward win-win outcomes and cooperate with India towards regional prosperity, but in some Indian assessments, China’s rising profile in South Asia is not good news. For example, an Indian analyst argues that China is expanding its sphere of regional influence by surrounding India with a ‘string of pearls’ that could eventually undermine India pre-eminence and potentially become an economic and security threat.
Obviously, Xi’s visits in September not only tried to confirm that Beijing is putting greater emphasis on this region, but also demonstrate that it want to address its neighbours’ “China threat” perception. For this, the Chinese leader presented Beijing current South Asian policy with some new characteristics.
First, Xi emphasised common regional development. In his speech at the Indian Council of World Affairs, he said, “A South Asia that enjoys peace, stability, development and prosperity serves the interests of countries and people in the region and of China as well. China wants to live in harmony with all countries in the region and contribute its share to the development of the region. ” Xi not only suggested that China should work with the relevant countries to step up economic integration and connectivity in the region but also proposed that they come together to join the “Belt” and “Road” initiatives that aim at strengthening connectivity among countries along the traditional land and maritime silk roads.
Second, Xi emphasised multi-dimensional cooperation with South Asian partners. For economic cooperation, in the next five years, China plans to work with South Asian countries to increase bilateral trade to US$150 billion, its investments in South Asia to US$30 billion, and provide US$20 billion in concessional facilities to the region. It needs to be mentioned that Beijing also focuses on other modes of cooperation and interaction with South Asia. China is concentrating its efforts on expanding people-to-people and cultural exchanges with South Asia. It plans to offer 10,000 scholarships, training opportunities for 5,000 people, an exchange and training programme for 5,000 youth, and train 5,000 Chinese language teachers for South Asia in the next five years. In addition, China will work with South Asian countries to implement the China-South Asia Partnership Initiative for Science and Technology, give full play to the role of the China-South Asia Expo, and build new platforms for mutually beneficial cooperation.
There is no denying that during his trip, President Xi reaffirmed China’s good neighbourly foreign policy and made efforts to deepen strategic relations at the multilateral and bilateral levels, which is a timely move. It reflects what President Xi described: “the principles of China's neighbour diplomacy as amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness.” However, a one-time diplomatic trip may not be enough to address all the concerns and issues.
Although Xi’s South Asian trip opened a new door for China-South Asia relations, it is necessary for China to understand that challenges and problems still exist. In the future, China needs to undertake more dialogues and interactions both through the official and civilian channels with South Asia, in particular, India. As the two biggest powers in the region, China and India should both be positive and see the multiple levels of potential interaction in the future, and join hands in cooperation. It will benefit this region and the rest of Asia as well. In addition, China also should be aware of other challenges it might face such as how to deal with South Asia’s complicated regional relations, in particular, India-Pakistan relations, which needs China’s smart and cautious diplomacy. Other issues like Afghanistan’s stability and development, especially after 2014, will also test Chinese political and diplomatic wisdom. Just as some analysts say, China should realize that instability in one part of the region inevitably bleeds into other parts of South Asia and could possible threaten China.