Sino-South Asian Ties: Problems & Prospects

Swaran Singh, Research Fellow, IDSA


Known as Tian Zhu (the Western heaven), the Indian subcontinent had historically enjoyed a revered image amongst the Chinese. At least for the last 2000 years, this view has since been affirmed by a series of archaeological discoveries as also by written records that trace Sino-Indian interactions to 221 BC. Even though these interactions were sporadic and confined to culture and commerce, they constituted great influence on their evolution over the ages with Buddhism providing the strongest link between the two societies. This positive image was to receive its first serious blow with the consolidation of the British Empire in the Indian subcontinent. Expansionist policies of the British collided with the Chinese 'Middle Kingdom' pride which resulted in the Opium Wars (1840) and later in Younghusband's military expedition into Tibet (1905). It was these historical legacies of disputed border claims and mutual suspicion that were to later determine New China's policies vis-a-vis South Asian countries thus guiding Beijing's South Asia policy by security considerations. This connection was further reinforced by the Cold War bipolarism which was partly responsible for the Sino-Indian war of 1962. This war, followed by the emergence of a Sino-Pak nexus has since dominated the security debates amongst South Asian countries. It is in this backdrop that this paper tries to examine and highlight the China-connection to the South Asian security scenario during these last fifty years.

China-connection : Fundamental elements

Before analysing the details of China's more recent indulgence with smaller South Asian states, which more often than not have been dependent on China's policies and perceptions about India, it seems imperative to broadly glance through the overall profile of this China-connection of the South Asian security profile. In brief, the following can be cited as some of the fundamental elements of China's policies and initiatives vis-a-vis South Asian countries that have had a direct impact on the nature and other parameters of South Asian security as it has evolved during the last 50 years:

l Firstly, conventional wisdom tells us that boundary disputes have been the root cause of inter-state threat perceptions. Of the seven South Asian states, China shares common borders with four which makes China very integral to South Asia. What makes these boundaries critical is that all of these have been disputed and have populations that overlap into each other's claimed territories. China has since resolved most of its land borders with other countries yet, its unresolved boundary with India makes these smaller South Asian states very critical buffers between China and India. Even Bangladesh, that was not on the scene until 1971, and does not directly share a border with China remains important for China as, at one stage, China had toyed with the idea of using it for finding an outlet to the Indian ocean.

l Secondly, the ethnic Chinese community, which has been the major concern as also instrument of China's policies in Southeast Asia, has been virtually non-existent in South Asia. Except for the Indian metropolis of Calcutta, South Asia has no visible trace of the Chinese ethnic community that could have any impact on the South Asian security environment. Instead, the Chinese minority of Tibetans has been a major point of irritation in Sino-Indian ties and this has greatly influenced China's dealing with other South Asian countries. Similarly, some communities in Bhutan, Nepal and India's northeastern region occasionally emphasise their racial affinity with the Chinese ethnic minorities. But, these have also not played any role in China's South Asia policy.

l Thirdly, ideologies form another major influence in determining the nature of this China-connection of South Asian security. But it needs to be emphasised that despite Mao's condemnation of post-colonial South Asian political regimes as being reactionary and wishing them to be overthrown by communist revolutions, ideology had nothing whatsoever to do with China's policies towards these South Asian countries. Given their sensitivities about Tibet which has traditionally been seen by the Chinese as their "soft strategic underbelly", China's South Asia policy had always been guided purely by its security considerations. These trends were clearly visible in China's military invasion and fortification of Tibet and later by its tilt towards the military regimes of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma that became part of China's indirect approach in dealing with New Delhi.

l Fourthly, even amongst China's 'special relationships' with South Asian military regimes, the Sino-Pak nexus presents a unique example of inter-state ties, which has no comparison whatsoever anywhere around the world. This is a unique case where one nuclear weapon state has been responsible for propping up another nuclear weapon state. Similar attempts were also made by China in Burma yet, China's indulgence has had only limited success with their military regime. Given the proximity and interdependence of smaller South Asian countries with India, Chinese indulgence has not resulted in any formal military alliance with any of India's neighbours. However, this indulgence does have a major influence on South Asian threat perception that mainly moulds the South Asian security profile.

l Fifthly, despite the absence of ideological linkage or military alliances, China has tried to tie down India to South Asia by seeking influence by building friendship with all its neighbours. Between 1956-1973, when Sino-Indian ties were at their lowest ebb, nearly 20 per cent of China's total world aid was targeted to these South Asian countries, with Pakistan receiving 13.1 per cent, Sri Lanka 3.5 per cent and Nepal 2.9 per cent.1 The main focus was generally on supplying these countries with military equipment resulting in China emerging as the single largest supplier of military equipment to Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Burma.2 This extreme indulgence has to be understood in terms of Beijing's strategic vision of emerging as the Asian leader which has a direct bearing on South Asian security. To give one example, in November 1985, China's 3,000-ton Guided Missile Destroyer paid a "friendly visit" to Islamabad and Colombo and it completely omitted ports of the largest littoral state, India.3 This was despite the fact that by this time the Sino-Indian ties had overcome their post-1962 problems.

l And finally, given China's limited leverage amongst South Asian countries, Beijing has continued to modulate its South Asian policy objectives to suit its national objectives. Failing to force these smaller neighbours to become pawns for China, Beijing has repeatedly resorted to emphasising that these smaller states must follow an 'independent'' policy, implying thereby that they should not allow India to influence their decision-making. Occasionally, China also tries to offer itself as a moral and political counterweight to what it perceives as India's attempts at bullying these South Asian regimes. But following improvement in Sino-Indian ties since the early 1980s, Beijing has gradually lost its motivations to prop these smaller states against India. Accordingly, recent years have witnessed China encouraging these states to improve their ties with New Delhi.4

In addition to these aforesaid salient features of the China-connection to South Asian security during the past 50 years, even the Chinese experts agree that despite fast changing realities of geo-strategy and geo-economics, this China-connection to South Asian security will continue to be integral to it in the coming years.5 But given the diversity of politico-strategic culture as also the diversity in the capabilities of South Asian countries, the majority of issues will still remain outside the framework of any discussion on the China-connection of South Asian security. To understand those critical nuances, therefore, it perhaps becomes imperative to survey China's relations with each of these South Asian states and to highlight China's overall influence in the evolution of South Asian security profile.

China and India

Without doubt, India remains the single most decisive factor in determining China's policy initiatives and objectives vis-à-vis South Asia. A brief look at the nature of the post-liberation history of Sino-Indian ties, shows that these had been deeply influenced by (a) British India's imperial policies and (b) the nature of interactions between their national liberation movements that was based on their common anti-colonial sentiments. Very briefly, starting from the early 1930s, Indian National Congress leadership had publicly expressed its sympathies with Chinese nationalists and communists fighting together against the ruthless onslaughts of Japanese militarism. Apart from exchange of visits and letters by Jawaharlal Nehru, Rabindra Nath Tagore and Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, it was the medical mission led by Dr. Kotnis during the Sino-Japanese war that had created an indelible imprint on Chinese memories. During his visit to China during August 1939, Jawaharlal Nehru had talked eloquently of the "imperishable links" which bound our peoples together. He even talked of an "Eastern Federation of China and India" and of other eastern countries and was "astonished and grateful" for the desire of the Chinese people "for a close and friendly union with the people of India."6 Dr. S. Radhakrishnan during the course of his visit to wartime Chungking in May 1941 talked of "our civilisations possessing a common cultural and spiritual background with an identity of ideals of happy life and friendship", which at the political plane present "a unique example of good neighbourly behaviour."7 Tagore who visited China in the midst of Japanese onslaughts during 1937 was so impressed by the similarities of the two Asian civilisations that on his return he laid the foundations of India's very first center for China studies at Shantiniketan.

It was against this backdrop, followed by the euphoria of Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai, that Indian leadership had surrendered India's entire military and administrative presence in Tibet under the Panchshila Agreement of April 29, 1954. These Indian concessions were based on an understanding that China and India would soon finalise a package deal on their entire boundary dispute which, however, never came about as the Chinese side belied their promises. This was partly because the Chinese became suspicious when both the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama together visited India during 1956 and this was followed by the Dalai Lama being formally granted asylum in India in 1959. But, with the advantage of hindsight, the Chinese leaders had perhaps begun to think differently even before the ink on Panchshila agreement had dried. The first expression of the fact that Sino-Indian ties had begun to get complicated came during the April 1955 Afro-Asian summit at Bandung (Indonesia). During one of its meetings, the Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai told Pakistani Premier, Mohammed Ali Bogra, that there was "no conceivable clash of interests which could imperil friendly relations between their two countries."8 Bogra would have visited China the same year, but he was ousted from power. Yet, the next Pakistani Premier H.S Suhrawardy visited China in 1956 and Premier Zhou En-lai reciprocated his visit in 1957 and this laid the foundations of the Sino-Pak ties that were to later emerge as the single most critical irritant in Sino-Indian relations.

As regards the Sino-India border conflict of October-November 1962, numerous studies have detailed on how their ties began to get derailed following the publication of China's official map in 1959. Each of these studies had reached their own conclusions as to whose policies and actions were responsible for such an impasse in Sino-Indian ties. Nevertheless, most of them agree on the fact that the Chinese side was apparently found far better prepared for such an eventuality while the Indian side was not only found ill-prepared but seemed to have been taken by surprise. What further proves the strength of China's pragmatism is the fact that within a matter of a few weeks following the Sino-Indian border conflict, China and Pakistan had finalised their border settlement by December 1962 and a formal agreement in this regard was signed on March 1963. With this ended the only dispute that could have stopped these two countries from forming a joint front against their common enemy, India. However, conforming to the same pragmatism, while Beijing had cultivated 'special relationship' with Islamabad, the Chinese had also continued to make positive overtures towards India. For example, when Beijing signed the border settlement with Pakistan, they insisted on a clause which said that this agreement would be renegotiated in case the final settlement of the Indo-Pak dispute over this territory ends with transfer of these areas to India. Similarly, during the Beijing Asian Games of 1967, China formally wrote to the Indian government inviting the Indian delegation to participate in the Asian Games. Later, in May 1981, Deng Xiaoping had voluntarily revived the 1960 proposal of Premier Zhou En-lai for a package deal on the entire Sino-Indian boundary dispute.

From the Indian side, such overtures commenced with Sardar Swaran Singh (then foreign minister) making a statement in the Indian Parliament in August 1970 expressing his government's desire "to settle all matters…peacefully through bilateral negotiation" and this was followed by the two sides allowing installation of telex with each other's Embassies in Delhi and Beijing, India supported China's candidacy for Manila-based Asian Development Bank, inviting China to a regional conference of UNESCO at Delhi, and finally, Mrs. Indira Gandhi made a personal visit to the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi to sign the condolence book following the death of her father's dear friend Zhou En-lai. This rapprochement finally resulted in India and China resuming their diplomatic ties at the Ambassadorial level in 1975. Similarly, India not only became the first to announce as well as resume Ambassadorial exchange (July 1975), it was also the first to send its Foreign Minister (February 1979), Prime Minister (December 1988) and President (May 1992) to Beijing. These visits were, of course, aptly reciprocated by their Chinese counterparts during 1984, 1991 and 1996 respectively, at the end of which Pakistan became the last South Asian country to be told by the Chinese to bilaterally sort out its ties with New Delhi. The last few years have witnessed China endorse India's views on various issues including Kashmir, and except for a brief problematic period following India's nuclear tests during May 1998, China's appreciation of India's policies was visible in China's neutral posture during the fourth Indo-Pak war in Kargil in May-July 1999.

Especially, since the post-Belgrade bombing of the Chinese embassy, the Chinese have since begun to focus on evolving their ideas about a multi-polar world far more seriously with security frameworks like a Russo-Sino-Indian trilateral strategic triangle becoming an increasingly important item in their list of priorities for China's foreign policy. This experience has further reinforced their belief that the Chinese cannot afford to have any problems with neighbouring countries, at least not during the first quarter of the 21st century. This arrangement equally suits Indian foreign policy and both thus have a perfect opportunity to work together towards evolving their common ideas on how to evolve the new world order for the 21st century. It is in such a positive environment of greater mutual trust and understanding that lies the hope that the Chinese and Indian leaders might finally find some answers to their perennial mutual suspicions as also a lasting solution to other more intractable problems like their disputed boundaries.

China and Pakistan

The Sino-Pak 'special relationship' has been unique in more ways than one:

Firstly, Pakistan constitutes the only exception where China has managed to have stable ties throughout these last five decades. The only comparable example is that of North Korea, though they have suffered occasional disruptions and more recently Beijing's engagement with Seoul has clearly undermined their unstinting support to the North Korean communist regime. Secondly, Sino-Pak defence cooperation, especially China's assistance and supplies of nuclear and missile technologies are the only example where one nuclear weapons power has not only virtually created another nuclear power but has continued to enjoy stable ties even after the latter formally declared itself as a nuclear weapon state. And finally, Sino-Pak ties, despite their being primarily dominated by their one-sided military cooperation and supplies have not flowered into a full-fledged military alliance. All this has confounded experts about China's motivations for such unstinted commitment to ensuring the security of Pakistan.

To begin with, the Chinese were extremely suspicious of Pakistan which was seen to be a close ally of their chief enemy, the United States. Pakistan had been part of the Western sponsored anti-China alliances like the South East Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO) as also of the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO). Although, some Pakistani scholars claim that Islamabad had recognised the New China in January 1950 (that is before India) the Chinese official records and scholars believe that the formal diplomatic ties between China and Pakistan were established only on May 21, 1951.9 Even after this formal extension of official recognition nothing much really occurred until early 1960s. But this was the period that witnessed China complicating its ties both with India and the former Soviet Union. Indeed, there had been no high-level Sino-Pak interaction until Premier Zhou En-lai met his Pakistani counterpart Mohammed Ali Bogra during the Afro-Asian Conference at Bandung in April 1955. It was their meetings at Bandung that made these two leaders realise that (a) China and Pakistan could evolve a working relationship despite differences in their ideologies and political systems, (b) China and India were emerging as rivals for leadership amongst Afro-Asian countries, and (c) China and Pakistan could cooperate to increase their leverage against India and the Soviet Union.10 Later, Premier H.S. Suhrawardy visited China in 1956 and Zhou En-lai visited both West and East Pakistan in 1957. The meaningful Sino-Pak interactions began only from early 1960s when the two signed (a) a trade agreement in January 1963, (b) a border demarcation agreement in March 1963, (c) an air services agreement in August 1963 and finally (d) a cultural agreement in March 1965.11

To recall the sequence, within a matter of a few weeks following the Sino-Indian border conflict of October 1962, China and Pakistan had finalised their border settlement (December 1962) and a formal agreement in this regard was signed in March 1963. This removed the only irritant that had existed in Sino-Pak ties. As a result, during the 1965 Indo-Pak war, China not only supplied Pakistan military equipment and provided indications of intervening in case India extended the war to East Pakistan, but the Chinese media clearly condemned India as the aggressor.12 The 1971 Indo-Pak war had come at the time when China was obliged to Pakistan for its role in arranging Henry Kissinger's secret trip to Beijing in July 1971 which facilitated the historic Sino-US détente, as also following the Indo-Soviet Treaty that was signed in August 1971. Accordingly, China not only provided moral and political support, but began to supply military equipment to Pakistan through the Karakoram International Highway since March 1971 and, at the height of this conflict, trips of 100 lorries were made per day to replenish Pakistan's arms and ammunition.13 Later, Chinese media was to compare India's role in the birth of Bangladesh to that of the Japanese creation of Manchu Guo.14

The year 1971 had also witnessed a complete transformation in the profile of South Asian security complex as a third important power—Bangladesh—came into the picture.15 For China's strategic thinkers, the fact of Pakistan getting dismembered had not only made India the most powerful country in South Asia but breached their unique leverage of countering India from two sides i.e. East and West Pakistan. This was to be followed by India's nuclear explosion of May 18, 1974. All this perhaps compelled Beijing to enhance its commitment towards dismembered Pakistan and to accept the latter's persistent request to assist it in building its independent nuclear posture which was finally agreed in a Sino-Pak agreement of September 1974.16 However, given the rising crusade of non-proliferation by Western powers China has lately begun to distance itself from Islamabad's adventurist policies in promoting terrorism in India's Kashmir or Afghanistan. The most recent episode which underlines this basic shift in China's policies towards Pakistan was reflected in Beijing's strong neutral posture in the fourth Indo-Pak war in Kargil. This has introduced a slight change in the nature of China-connection to South Asian security.

China and Sri Lanka

Apart from its usual Indian connection, studies on China's motivations in building ties with Sri Lanka have often cited Sino-Sri Lankan ties as being extremely critical in completing China's encirclement of India. As regards Colombo's motives, these have been overcast by its attempt to come out of the overshadowing Indian pre-eminence in South Asia and this has goaded Sri Lanka to encourage external powers' involvement in South Asia. To quote one Sri Lankan scholar, "From the point of view of small states of South Asia, a stronger presence of China as a countervailing force is a desirable phenomenon in view of the growing and unquestionable supremacy of India in the region."17 A similar view has also been echoed from China by another Peking University professor who believes that it is "the short-sighted policy pursued by successive Indian governments to make India the sole dominant power in South Asia" that has created such suspicions in the minds of smaller states like Sri Lanka.18

To recall, the evolution and impact of Sino-Sri Lankan ties, Colombo had been initially aligned to the West (Defence Agreement with Britain) and was seen as hostile to all communist countries. This was partly both as a cause as also the consequence of China not letting Sri Lanka become a member of the United Nations until the end of 1955. In such an anti-China environment during 1948-1956 period, the Rubber-Rice Agreement of 1952 stood as an exception where Colombo had decided to undermine the prevailing US embargo on the sale of strategic materials to China. Economically, however, it was a boon to Sri Lanka as it not only provided a market for its surplus rubber but obtained access to low-priced foodgrain and this treaty has since been renewed several times. Secondly, Sino-Sri Lankan ties have also been very clearly influenced by their domestic politics and its personalities. In 1956, for example, when the Sri Lanka Freedom Party breached the UNP's singular hold on power since 1948, the new leadership under SWRD Bandaranaike and Sirimavo Bandaranaike marked a major shift in Sri Lanka's foreign relations. Asserting a genuine non-aligned policy, British bases in Trincomalee and Kautanayake were closed in 1957, though the Defence Agreement was never formally abrogated. As the first step, Colombo extended diplomatic ties with China on February 7, 1957 and this was followed by Premier Zhou En-lai visiting Sri Lanka in 1958 and 1964. Given this leverage of the Sri Lankan leaders, during the Sino-Indian conflict of October 1962, Sirimavo Bandaranaike was able to take the initiative for a conference of the non-aligned countries to mediate between India and China. She even visited Beijing in 1963 to explain what has since come to be called the Colombo proposals.

A more pro-India UNP, on the other hand, was not only critical of Sirimavo Bandaranaike for not branding China as the aggressor but also denounced the Sino-Sri Lanka Maritime Agreement of July 1963 and accused the ruling SLFP of handing over Trincomalee base to the Chinese. In 1965, the UNP returned to power with Dudley Senanayake's government reasserting their pro-West tilt leading to Colombo rejecting Beijing's nominee for Ambassador and China being without an Ambassador in Colombo for the next five years. This period also coincided with China's Cultural Revolution and those internal convulsions also had their negative impact on Sino-Sri Lanka ties. As a result, Sri Lanka even toyed with the idea of joining the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) which was formed in 1967 and was clearly seen as anti-Chinese. The return of SLFP to power in 1970 (this time as leading partner in left parties coalition), was followed by China, once again, becoming a major actor in Sri Lankan affairs. Apart from a brief period of confusion during the Janata Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) insurrection during 1971, Sirimavo Bandaranaike paid a highly publicised visit to Beijing in 1972 where, following her audience with Chairman Mao, she described Sino-Sri Lankan ties as "a model of inter-state relations".19 This was followed by a number of Chinese loans and projects for Sri Lanka including a gift of five high-speed naval boats to the Sri Lankan Navy. There had also been allegations of the Chinese hand in Sri Lanka allowing landing facilities and even troops to the Pakistan Air Force fighters on their way to then East Pakistan and it also took some time before it finally extended its official recognition to the new state of Bangladesh.

Though the 1977 elections witnessed the decimation of SLFP and the UNP again came to power yet, in view of the big shift in terms of rapprochement between Beijing and Washington in early 1971, Colombo could continue to evolve its ties with Beijing. But it was the escalation of the Tamil ethnic insurrections since 1983 that made Sri Lanka look inwards and also made India virtually the single most influential external factor in Sri Lanka. Though China continued to strengthen its ties by extending high-level visits and military equipment yet, with improvement of Sino-Indian ties as also China's limited role in Sri Lanka, Beijing gradually accepted the pre-eminence of India in South Asia. These new equations were aptly surmised by President Jayawardene who is quoted having said that, "They were good friends and gave us military equipment, guns, etc. at reasonable terms. But what could they do? I could not ask them to start a border war in the north to keep the Indians busy. Even if I had, I doubt if they would have done it."20 And since then these new equations had continued to determine the nature of China connection in Sri Lanka's vision of South Asian security environment. China, fully appreciating the changed reality, never made any public comments against Indian Peace Keeping Force's (IPKF) operations in Sri Lanka and the matter was strictly handled between Sri Lanka and Indian ruling regimes which, of course, have had their own differences. But, at the same time, the theologies of Colombo being one of the critical links in China's encirclement of India have not yet disappeared from the strategic debates on South Asia.

China and Nepal

Nepal has been another important country that has greatly influenced Sino-South Asian ties. Despite Nepal's inalienable cultural, commercial and civilisational roots in India, it is their desire to assert independence and identity that has constantly compelled Nepalese ruling regimes to play north against the south. This has also often resulted from their desire to obtain concessions from both sides though, given its geography and history, Nepal has generally remained closer towards India rather than China. Secondly, Nepal's attempts at maintaining equidistance between India and China has been influenced by views of Nepal's dominant ethnic communities as also their representatives i.e. the Nepali Congress and the Communists. The Kings and their loyalists have acted as the balancing third force, though often even they have become part of the same power struggle. The Chinese attitude towards Nepal has been guided by their historical legacies like territorial claims and their 'Middle Kingdom' traditions as also by their contemporary security concerns about Tibet and its Indian connection. China has cultivated Nepal as part of its larger security agenda and has been too willing to offer itself as Nepal's counterweight against India that has enjoyed a special position owing to the Indo-Nepal Treaty of 1950. As regards their territorial claims, China and Nepal had a few minor points of disagreement that were settled in 1961.

In terms of the evolution of Sino-Nepalese ties, though Nepal had extended its official recognition of the Communist regime on August 1, 1955, direct interactions between them did not take place until 1959 for Nepal was known for its closeness with India. It was in the context of Nepali Congress taking over power and the beginning of Sino-Indian confrontation on the boundary question that year that had made the Chinese deeply interested in Nepal. Prime Minister B.P. Koirala, however, tried to balance his policies by engaging the Chinese without disturbing the basic framework of Indo-Nepalese ties. And, while he paid a visit to Beijing in March 1960 and signed a Treaty of Peace and Friendship and obtained Rs. 100 million in economic aid, he declined to sign a non-aggression pact as also a Chinese offer to build a road link. Later, King Mahendra accepted the same offer of Lhasa-Kathmandu road when it was presented to him by the Chinese as a bargaining chip for resolving the boundary dispute.21 This road has since been considered as providing China a strategic access to South Asia, which is the only all season road other than Karakoram highway that connects China and Pakistan which was also built around the same time. But an even more important decision of King Mahendra was to dismiss the Koirala government in April which caused Nepal to tilt temporarily towards China. Nehru, already perturbed by developments in Sino-Indian ties, feared that these internal political upheavals would make Nepal vulnerable to Chinese designs and criticised the King's action as "a set back" to Nepal's democracy.22

King Mahendra responded to Nehru's tough posture by building his leverage against India. China, of course, was more than willing to walk in, given the deteriorating trends in Sino-Indian relations. But with China's limited leverage across Great Himalayas as also its security concerns about Tibet, Beijing's engagement with Nepal has never had any satisfying results for the Chinese side. Accordingly, China has always settled for very limited objectives of ensuring Nepal's neutrality in any Sino-Indian struggle and for this China never encouraged Nepali communists to threaten the system of monarchy in Nepal. In the long run, however, this continued engagement did create a certain proximity between China and Nepal and especially with the construction of Kathmandu-Lhasa road, Nepal was no longer India-locked. Meanwhile, China has also repeatedly used anti-Indian sentiments of both Nepali communists and the King to wean away Nepal from India and this found expression in the Nepalese demand for the withdrawal of the Indian Military Liaison Group and Indian personnel from checkposts on Nepal-Tibet border. Beijing, however, was only trying to project Nepal as a separate entity as also build it as a strategic buffer between India and China. But it still could not undermine India's special position and despite this equidistance, King Mahendra's period saw India and Nepal signing an agreement in 1965 which established a framework for India's supply of arms to Nepal.

The death of King Mahendra and accession of his son Birendra to the throne in 1972 witnessed historic events like the Sino-US rapprochement and bifurcation of Pakistan that made India the most dominant power in South Asia. The follow up events like India's nuclear test and merger of Sikkim had aroused concerns in Nepal. And as Mrs. Indira Gandhi adopted a tough posture towards Nepal, young King Birendra responded by continuing his father's policy of building closer ties with China. The 1970s, therefore, saw China supporting Nepal's proposal of 'Zone of Peace', expanding their aid and trade, including a direct air link that resulted in several high-level visits between the two sides. King Birendra himself paid several visits to Beijing and these were reciprocated by visits by Deng Xiaoping and his prime minister and foreign minister to Kathmandu during 1978, 1979, and 1981 respectively. As a result, during late 1980s, when the monarchy was challenged collectively by all political forces combined—some of them were openly supported by India-New Delhi decided to play neutral.

Considering that late 1980s and early 1990s was the period of collapse of communist regimes around the world and that in its post-Tiananmen incarnation, China had high stakes in improving ties with India, Beijing has shown no inclination to encourage the King's independence. Within Nepal, all major parties were united against the monarch and during the January 1990s convention of the Nepali Congress, most of the Indian political parties sent delegations. Meanwhile, differences with the monarchy also led to the closure of various routes by India for trade with Nepal; this increased the hardship of Nepali people and further increased their disaffection against the monarch. Considering that all attempts to rescue the monarchy were in vain, Prime Minister Li Peng, during his visit to Kathmandu in November 1989, advised Nepal to mend its ties with India on their own. The collapse of the partyless panchayat in April 1990 led to the formation of a coalition under K.P. Bhattarai who, despite having communists as part of his government, issued a call to restore 'natural' ties with India. India also reopened the trade routes that were closed, and Bhattarai assured India of safeguarding its interests in Nepal and virtually buried the Zone of Peace proposal. The G.P. Koirala government tried again to maintain equidistance between China and India though with improved Sino-Indian ties, Nepal's leverage to use the China card diminished. Particularly with the Communists coming to power, despite some noises about re-writing the Indo-Nepal Treaty of 1950, it did not really disturb the traditional Indian pre-eminence in Nepal. Thus China's leverage with Nepal for influencing South Asian security profile remains limited.

China and Bhutan

Despite its small size and limited interest in the outside world, Bhutan has played an important role in connecting China to South Asian affairs. Mainly due to Bhutan's geographical location—south of the Great Himalayas—as also due to the long-standing commercial and cultural interactions between the two sides, India had always been the most important external factor in the evolution of Bhutan. Once Bhutan accepted its special relationship with New Delhi starting from mid-1960s, it never tried to undermine this relationship, not even to emulate the Nepalese example of 'balancing' between New Delhi and Beijing. Till today Bhutan has only two Ambassadors—from India and Bangladesh—and despite having joined the United Nations since 1971, Bhutan has not established direct diplomatic relations with any of the other nation states. To look at its China connection, it was the Chinese military invasion of Tibet that tilted Bhutan towards India as this was followed by hundreds of Tibetan refugees crossing over to Bhutan, as also the Cultural Revolution which witnessed Chinese propaganda inciting Bhutanese people to "overthrow the government of Bhutan."23 As regards China's motivations, major issues that dominated Sino-Bhutanese ties included Beijing's accusations of India's expansionist policies and it is this major issue that had also moulded China's attitude towards the Sino-Bhutanese boundary demarcation as also Bhutan's ethnic problems. Yet, China continued its efforts not only to find a foothold in Bhutan but also to wean it away from its traditional tilt towards India.

Right from the days when India's own independence was being negotiated, Indian leadership had recognised Bhutan's special status and there was no question raised of Bhutan joining the new Indian republic or adopting the Indian political system though it was also not encouraged to evolve an international profile. This insulation from the external world was further reinforced by the Indo-Bhutan Treaty of 1949 where Article 2 stipulated that "The Government of India undertakes to exercise no interference in the internal administration of Bhutan. On its part the Government of Bhutan agrees to be guided by the advice of the Government of India in regard to its external relations." It is on this basis that India opted to negotiate Bhutan's boundaries with Tibetan portion of China. The very map that was published in July 1958 and which marked the beginning of Sino-Indian problems had included the entire eastern district of Tashigong and pockets of northeastern and northwestern Bhutan as part of sovereign China. The centuries old traditions of trade and commerce between Tibet and Bhutan also came to an abrupt halt following China's military takeover of Lhasa. Especially, following Dalai Lama's exit from Tibet, Bhutan closed all its trade routes northwards from Paro, Punakha and Tashigong to Shigatse and Lhasa, as also its trade in Chumbi valley in the west via Yatung. In view of these deteriorating ties between Tibet and Bhutan, Nehru visited Bhutan in 1958 and this followed in Bhutan focusing its trade and commerce southward which led to a series of joint projects between India and Bhutan. Later, the responsibilities of the defence of Bhutan and military training missions etc. were also entrusted to India under some unpublished agreements that were signed during the Bhutanese King's visit to New Delhi in 1961.24 This was followed by Indian military teams trekking through Bhutan and India's newly created Border Roads Organisation beginning construction of roads between Phuntsholing and Thimpu. The same year formal developmental planning was initiated in Bhutan with India underwriting 100 per cent technical and financial responsibility for the first two Five Year Plans which has since been reduced to less than 25 per cent, as international financial agencies and bilateral donors like Switzerland and Japan have come in, as also Bhutans internal resources have begun to accrue dividends. Despite all this the Chinese did not attack Bhutan during the 1962 Sino-Indian war though they did not give up their legal claims to those territories.

India's special position has been one of the major contentions in Sino-Bhutanese ties right from early 1960s and Beijing continues to ask Bhutan to confer on Beijing a status equal to that of New Delhi and possibly to accept a Chinese Ambassador to Bhutan. This demand delayed their border talks with Bhutan until 1980s which again had a direct relationship with India's own improving ties with Beijing. The first major incident on the Sino-Bhutanese border had occurred during 1966, when on the tri-junction of Bhutan, Chumbi Valley and Sikkim, Tibetan grazers along with Chinese troops had entered Doklam pastures against warnings from Bhutanese officials. Later China formally extended its claim to about 300 sq. miles of northeastern Bhutan and also substantial areas north of Punakha, the former capital of Bhutan.25 While Bhutan wanted New Delhi to take up this matter with Beijing, an official statement from Beijing in October 1966 asserted that Sino-Bhutanese boundaries had never been demarcated and that while Beijing would like to do so "through friendly consultations" the matter "concerns China and Bhutan alone" and "the Indian government has no right whatsoever to intervene in it."26

Meanwhile, in 1971, China voted in favour of Bhutan's membership at the UN which obviously amounted to recognising Bhutan's status as a sovereign state in its own right. Even this apparent concession from Beijing did not lead to any positive outcome as soon Bhutan used its new status as UN member for strongly supporting India in its initiatives towards creation of a new state of Bangladesh which annoyed Chinese leaders. China continued to woo Bhutan and during this period though it also found an ally in a small group of rebels who were opposed to everything royal including the King's close ties with New Delhi and went across to join the Communist Party of Nepal. This being a positive signal for Chinese designs, Beijing sent a high-level delegation to attend the coronation of the new King during summer of 1974 and Chinese media played up the sentiment for Bhutan's self-reliant development and attacked India's 'annexation' of this mountain kingdom. Especially, given the example of Sikkim where Nepali settlers had threatened the Lepcha culture and Kingdom of Sikkim, this had its echoes in Bhutan and the Bhutanese King visited New Delhi to obtain assurances from Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Following Mrs. Gandhi's defeat in 1977 elections the gulf between Thimpu and the Janata regime increased further and at the Havana Non-Aligned summit of 1977 Bhutan voted opposite to India on the question of who should represent Cambodia which was construed by some as voting with the Chinese, but it was reported that Bhutan's King was already considering to 'up date' the Indo-Bhutan Treaty of 1949.27

On the boundary question, the Chinese were successful in finally starting direct negotiations between Chinese and Bhutanese officials in 1984 and the two sides have since finalised their boundary demarcation, which was never a major problem as far as China was concerned. India, on the other hand, played an important role as stipulated in the Indo-Bhutanese treaty of 1949 and despite having no direct participation in these talks, New Delhi was kept fully informed and assured by Bhutan that it was not going to compromise India's vital interests, while India provided guidance and advice to the Bhutanese officials in dealing with the Chinese. And finally, just like the case of most other South Asian countries, the apparent improvement in Sino-India ties since early 1980s have since diminished Chinese interest in Bhutan. Besides, the 1990s have witnessed Bhutan becoming excessively preoccupied with its problems of Nepali settlers in southern Bhutan which has made it further suspicious of the role of both Nepal and China and has increased Bhutan's dependence on India. However, China has continued to maintain a studied silence on Bhutan's treatment of its Nepali refugees which flows from its commitment to Panchshila, as also from its own track-record on human rights issues.

China and Bangladesh

China's ties with Bangladesh are being discussed in the end not because it had lesser influence over the South Asian security profile but simply because until 1971 it did not exist as an independent nation. Also, unlike China's ties with other South Asian states, its relations with Bangladesh also were not only determined by its inevitable Indian connection but also by Bangladesh's ties with Pakistan. Bangladeshi leaders and experts have also tried to project their country as China's connection to the Islamic world, both West and Southeast Asia and tried to carve a special space in China's vision of South Asia. Besides, the two countries have been sharing a working relationship since East Pakistan was the main beneficiary of China's involvement with Pakistan's military build-up. Lately, the two have also worked together at various common platforms from the United Nations to Economic and Social Council for Asia-Pacific (ESCAP) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) which has further strengthened their mutual stakes and understanding, leading to a series of trade, technology and political exchanges over the years, none of which has been of a permanent kind.

Recalling the circumstances under which Bangladesh was liberated with assistance from Indian armed forces, Beijing had described it's birth as an example of Indo-Soviet manipulation of regional unrest and refused to recognise it for a long time. Even later, China repeatedly urged Bangladesh to stand on its own and revive its contacts with Pakistan. Therefore as long as the Mujib government was in place China never extended its recognition to the new state of Bangladesh and continued to veto its entry into the United Nations and other international bodies. It was only 15 days after the bloody coup against Mujib-ur-Rehman that Beijing extended its recognition to Bangladesh on August 31, 1975 and this was followed by the establishment of diplomatic relations on October 4, 1975. The editorial of China's Communist Party mouthpiece China Daily of October 8, 1975 clearly expressed China's support for the policies of the new regime in Dhaka especially its 'opposition to outside interference'.28 Then the 1980s witnessed China supplying a large quantity of military equipment to Bangladesh and at one stage becoming the largest supplier for weapons, especially in the naval arm where much of the smaller boats were all Chinese.

The Zia-ur-Rehman's period witnessed normalisation of Pak-Bangla ties, and this was clearly put to use by Bangladesh in improving and expanding its ties with China. Successive regimes from both sides have since continued to place a high premium on their mutual trust and understanding. But just as in the case of most other South Asian states, improvement in Sino-Indian ties had resulted in China keeping restraint in propping up Bangladesh to disturb the South Asian security scenario. Unlike other South Asian states Bangladesh has been exceptional for its sensitivities about China's indulgence in Myanmar since the early 1990s and this has since seen Bangladesh trying to play an independent role in improving Indo-Pak and also Sino-Indian ties by promoting larger regional frameworks for cooperation.


To conclude, therefore, the aforesaid examination of the China-connection of the South Asian security scenario shows how purely security considerations have determined China's initiatives towards South Asian countries. Similarly, owing to its location, size and involvement, China has continued to be a major influence in determining the nature and profile of South Asian security. Thirdly, the nature of China's ties with India has been most decisive in determining China's South Asia policy. Fourthly, going by the broad trends so far, China's improving ties with India have generally undermined its motivations for greater involvement with other South Asian countries. And finally, given the increasing global interest in South Asian affairs during the post-Cold War era as also given China's steady movement towards becoming the next global power of the 21st century, this China-connection of South Asian security is very likely to persist in the coming years as well. Very briefly, therefore, it shows that while various factors may have influenced China's role in determining the security yet, China managed to retain its importance in determining the nature of South Asian security profile. And going by the current trends, in both China and South Asia, this China connection is very likely to continue asserting a similar influence on the South Asian security scene in the 21st century.



1. Jayanta Dhanapala, China and the Third World, (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1985), p.115.

2. Bates Gill, "Curbing Beijing's Arms Sales", Orbis (Pennsylvania), Summer 1992 reproduced in Strategic Digest (New Delhi), November 1992, pp. 1428-46.

3. "Chinese Warships Leave for South Asian Goodwill Visit", Summary of World Broadcasts,FE/8111/1, November 18, 1985.

4. Yu Gang, "Security of South Asia in the New Situation: A Chinese Perspective", Iftekharuzzaman (ed.), South Asia's Security: Primacy of Internal Dimensions, (New Delhi: Sage, 1995), p.309.

5. Guo Jingan, "Ways and Means to Promote Peace and Development and Safeguard the Security of Small States", M. Abdul Hafiz and Abdur Rob Khan (ed.), Security of Small States, (Dhaka, 1987), p. 306.

6. Parshotam Mehra, "China and South Asia - Some Reflections on the Past and the Future", China Report (New Delhi), Vol. 30 No. 3 (July-September 1994), p. 302.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid

9. "China and South Asia in the 21st Century", Spotlight on Regional Affairs (Islamabad: Institute of Regional Studies), Vol.xviii No.10, (October 1999), p.2.

10. P.L. Bhola, Pakistan-China Relations: Search for Politico-Strategic Relations, (Jaipur: 1986), p.69.

11. "China and South Asia in the 21st Century", Spotlight on Regional Affairs (Islamabad: Institute of Regional Studies), vol.xviii, no.10, (October 1999), p.2.

12. See J.K. Jain, China South Asian Relations 1947-1980, (Delhi: 1981), pp. 31-97.

13. J.N. Mohanty, "China and the Emergence of Bangladesh: Role of Great Power Global Perceptions", India Quarterly (New Delhi), vol.39 no.2 (April-June 1983), p.139.

14. Beijing Review (Beijing), December 10, 1971, pp. 7-8.

15. Barry Buzan and Gowher Rizvi, "The Future of the South Asian Security Complex" in Barry Buzan and Gawher Rizvi (ed.), South Asian Insecurity and the Great Powers, (London: 1986), p. 237.

16. P.L. Bhola, Pakistan's Nuclear Policy, (New Delhi, 1993), p52; also Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, If I am Assassinated, (New Delhi, 1979), 223.

17. Mahinda Werake, "China and South Asia: Some Historical Perspectives", in Shelton U. Kodikara (ed.), South Asian Strategic Issues: Sri Lankan Perspectives, (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1990), p.65.

18. Lin Liang Guang, "India's Role in South Asia: A Chinese Perspective", in Vernon L.B. Mendis (ed.), India's Role in South Asia, (Colombo: Bandaranaike Institute for International Studies, 1992), p. 45.

19. Gamini Navaratne, The China-Connexion—A Study of Sri Lanka-China Relations in the Modern Period, (Colombo: Sandasa News Agency Publications, 1976), p. 9.

20. S.D. Muni, Pangs of Proximity: India and Sri Lanka's Ethnic Crisis, (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1993), p. 100.


21. Mira Sinha, "Nepal's role in Sino-Indian Relations", IDSA Journal (New Delhi), vol.2, no.4 (April 1970), p. 481.

22. A.S. Bhasin (ed), Documents on Nepal's Relations with India and China 1949-66, (New Delhi: Academic Books, 1970), pp. 51-53.

23. Daljit Singh Adel, China and Her Neighbours, (New Delhi: Deep & Deep, 1984), p. 172.

24. Charles Heimsath and Surjit Mansingh, Diplomatic History of Modern India, (New Delhi: Allied Publishers, 1971), p. 295.

25. Kohli, n. 27, p. 173. [Daljit]

26. R.K. Jain, China and South Asia, (New Delhi: Radiant Publishers, 1981), p.29.

27. Manorma Kohli, "China Factor in Indo-Bhutanese Relations", in Virender Grover (ed), International Relations and Foreign Policy of India, Vol. 2 (New Delhi: Deep & Deep, 1992), p.203

28. R.K. Jain (ed), China Pakistan and Bangladesh, Vol. II, Basic Documents, 1950-76, (New Delhi: Radiant Publishers, 1984), pp. 245-47.