China's deeper involvement in southern Asia via the over USD 51 billion dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is stirring competitive Indian tendencies rather than cooperative ones, feels an American expert on South and West Asia, and China.
In an article published by the warontherocks.com website, Daniel Markey, a senior research professor in international relations, writing about the dynamics of intensifying competition - military, economic, diplomatic - in Southern Asia, and principally between China, India, Pakistan, and the United States, says the geopolitical implications of China's involvement in the region via the "flagship" CPEC is turning "gloomier" by the day in spite of the high-flying rhetoric associated with it since its announcement in 2013.
Professor Markey, who is currently writing a book about the geopolitics of increasing Chinese influence in Western Asia, opines that, "Individually, China's strategic moves in Southern Asia are opportunistic works-in-progress, but collectively they reflect deeper and longer-term aspirations for regional hegemony and global preeminence."
He further states that, "China, at least for the moment, has bold but still somewhat vague ambitions for Southern Asia and will likely cross this river by "feeling the stones," as Deng Xiaoping famously said in the context of his own reform efforts."
"The issue is whether the complexities of the region, and especially the longstanding tensions between India and Pakistan, will lead Beijing to slip and fall," he asks.
Professor Markey, as an academic director of the Global Policy Program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, believes that the economics only interpretation of the CPEC cannot explain Beijing's apparent willingness to dump considerable sums of money into projects that indicate questionable prospects for repayment.
And, as far as the security-only interpretation is concerned, he says, this premise is also flawed in two ways - (1) Pakistanis seem a great deal more eager to get the Chinese into Gwadar than the Chinese are on deploying naval assets in the region, and (2) The forbidding geography between Pakistan and western China is hardly conducive for facilitating massive commercial flows.
"Yes, some projects could well make money, and others will at least provide work for Chinese firms that are having trouble competing at home . As a consequence, the debate has effectively matured to recognize that China's motivations in supporting the corridor are mixed. Potential economic gains are real but insufficient.," Professor Markey adds.
Coming to the question of what is Pakistan attempting to achieve through the CPEC, Professor Markey says that viewed from a simplistic strategic perspective, Islamabad could be "seeking to use China as an external balancer in Pakistan's core strategic aim of resisting Indian domination," as have a "particular need for (seeking) additional external assistance because its ties with the once-generous United States are fraying."
However, he states that, "A more sophisticated read of Pakistan's intentions would see both logics at work, with Islamabad seizing a last, best opportunity to advance its economic and security agendas with Chinese assistance, but without submitting to the politically wrenching path of sweeping economic reforms or acquiescing to the even more painful reality of India's regional supremacy."
On how will India respond to the CPEC, Professor Markey writes in the article for the warontherocks.com website, "Thus far, India's official reaction to the corridor has been negative in a narrowly diplomatic sense, with New Delhi's criticism focused on Beijing's direct involvement in the disputed territories of Gilgit-Baltistan. More broadly, however, India sees the tightening China-Pakistan axis as a two-fold problem: First, the threat of Chinese encroachment in what New Delhi considers its traditional sphere of influence, and second, the threat that a China-backed Pakistan could be emboldened to pursue even more aggressive anti-Indian tactics, both by cross-border attacks by militant proxies and by ratcheting up tensions in the heat of a crisis."
"Combine these threat perceptions with the Indian government's increasingly muscular approach to international politics under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and you have a recipe for heightened regional competition and a greater chance of violent conflict," he adds.
He feels that India is showing every sign that it will improve its own military capabilities, cultivate powerful new friends (like the United States and Japan) and pursue tactics to deny China further territorial gains in Asia.
"CPEC or no, India is already in the process of attempting to establish a more effective deterrent against Pakistani adventurism and Chinese coercion," claims Professor Markey, citing the examples of the Doklam standoff and the "surgical strikes" at Uri as proof.
"Precisely how far New Delhi is prepared to go in response to the emergent China-Pakistan axis is not clear," Markey concludes by warning that, "if China and Pakistan both perceive the need to check Indian tactics by escalating their own competitive initiatives, the scene is undoubtedly set for an increasingly dangerous spiral of moves and counter-moves."