Geopolitical consequences of BRI and RSC of South Asia

By Harsha Senanayake

The primary purpose of this commentary was to derive a composite account of the regional security complex of South Asia and examine as to why China has to be considered as an internal member of the security complex of South Asia. An attempt has been made to outline not only the geopolitical consequences of the BRI in the context of the small states of South Asia yet also to study the continuation and the shifts of the security patterns in South Asia in terms of bilateral relations India vis-à-vis small countries. Also, it examines attempts at making economic inroads by China into South Asia, using massive infrastructure development projects parallel to core BRI projects as a tool to reconceptualise its relationship with South Asian countries. It is an inquiry into the BRI experiences in Sri Lanka and Nepal, in India’s proximity.

The regional security complex theory functions as a useful tool to analyse Chinese involvement and BRI effects on the security dynamics of South Asia. The theory has stressed that the external powers could penetrate a regional security complex and Buzan et al. brought the example of Cold War politics to validate this argument. For instance, the Cold War politics and rivalry of India-Pakistan created a window for external powers to penetrate the regional security complex of South Asia. However, these external powers are not capable of redefining, reorganising or reshaping the patterns of a regional security complex and without an invitation from an internal member which is involved with a regional power race, these external powers could not alter the dynamics in a particular regional security complex.

The conventional understanding of the theory did not identify the ability of external powers to reshape existing security patterns within a given complex. The paper has questioned the conventional understanding of theory and grounded China as an internal member of the regional security complex of South Asia. The political shift of China under the president Xi Jinping has introduced an umbrella of massive development projects: Belt and Road Initiative to reclaim its political supremacy of the world, particularly within the neighbouring regions including South Asia. The paper has looked at the BRI projects and its role in the context of small states of the region, significantly how it has changed the security posture of the small states.

The geopolitical reality of South Asia highlights that the small states are inevitably depending on India to address their political, economic and security needs. In this context, the small states are unavoidably subjected to the dominant power of India. Particularly India has interfered in the domestic politics of small states and India offered assistance to Nepal based on Indian political calculations while neglecting the needs of the government of Nepal (Regmi, 2017). Similar claims have been made by Sri Lanka during the post-civil war period, and notably, the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa criticised the political role of India and the decision of India to neglect Sri Lanka in the platform of UN.

The arrival of BRI into small states of South Asia can be understood within the framework of regional security complex theory. To qualify as an internal member of a particular regional security complex the individual players need to fit in the primary criteria of the theory which is “the local sets of states exist whose security perceptions and concerns link together sufficiently close that their national security problems cannot realistically be considered apart from one another” (Buzan, Rizvi, & Foot, 1986, p.21). The national interest of the small states in South Asia and the national interest of the Chinese government under BRI mutually coexist with each other. For instance, the Chinese through BRI attempt to win the strategic position in Hambantota Sri Lanka: one of the critical geolocation in the maritime silk route as an alternative to Malacca dilemma. Sri Lanka welcomed BRI to reduce its dependency over India while maintaining healthy relations with China to secure the position of Sri Lanka in the UN. The massive infrastructure and substantial financial aid and assistance which is placed on small nations in South Asia under the BRI created a strong relationship between these South Asian countries and China. These relations and BRI projects have changed the Chinese role in the regional security complex of South Asia to a proactive member of the region who redefined the security patterns of the complex, particularly the bilateral relations of smaller states vis-à-vis India.

The small states reoriented their foreign policy towards China while walking away from India. The paper highlighted foreign policy shift in Nepal in late 2015 when the political interference by India in domestic political issues of Nepal forced the administration to get closer to China while reducing its dependence on India. The foreign policy shift is not unique to the context of Nepal, and the paper stressed different reasons for the foreign policy shifts of Sri Lanka and Nepal towards China. The escalation of Chinese presence in Indian backyard forced India to think about its security arrangements and its relationship with small states of the region. Previously, China as an external actor penetrated regional security complex of South Asia based on the rivalry of India-Pakistan. However, with the BRI, China has changed its involvement with South Asia, and particularly, it has linked with many small countries based on mutual and shared national interests.

According to the regional security complex theory, the BRI projects placed China in a strong position which could define, organise, and construct the security patterns of the regional security complex. The role of BRI in the South Asian region stressed that India could not think about its security without considering China and the behaviour of small states of South Asia. In this context, the thesis emphasises that security perceptions and concerns of these countries are linked together sufficiently close and their national security problems cannot realistically be considered apart from one another.

Harsha Senanayake is a researcher at Social Scientists’ Association- Sri Lanka and a visiting lecturer at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. He has acquired a masters degree in International Relations from the Department of International Relations, South Asian University, New Delhi, India and a specialised degree in International Relations from the Department of International Relations, University of Colombo. Harsha serves as an AIPE fellow- TFAS USA. He has authored few books including The Changing Patterns of USA- Japan Security Relations: Case Study of Okinawa and The Human Security Discourse and Seeking Peace: Field Work Analysis Based on the Sri Lankan Civil War.

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