By seeking to establish their dominance over South Asia, India and China are constraining the economic prospects of smaller neighbours. Their contest for the upper hand is also exacting a human toll on Muslim minorities in Myanmar and Hindus in Sri Lanka.
More than 600,000 ethnic Rohingya have poured into Bangladesh since August. Beijing and New Delhi dismiss their persecution as part of Myanmar’s internal affairs, given that both wish to be in the good books of the strategically important, resource-rich nation.
This just adds to regional tensions. Bengalis are pressing their government to arm the refugees to fight the Myanmese military. Bangladesh has conveyed its displeasure to both India and China over their policies. In fact, there is great potential for economic cooperation between Bangladesh and Myanmar. For example, Bangladesh could tap into Myanmar’s huge potential hydroelectric power resources, while the two nations, along with India and China, have discussed building an economic corridor to lift up the area’s 400 million hapless residents.
Yet, hindering such possibilities is the India-China border dispute involving Bhutan, which flared up recently. Sri Lanka’s Hindus, meanwhile, are also casualties of this Sino-Indian cold war, because India has favoured economic and military issues rather than human rights concerns due to the China factor. Beijing’s aid to Sri Lanka has boomed since the end of the civil war in 2009, with mega projects to help draw Sri Lanka into its “Belt and Road Initiative”.
Also, in Pakistan, Beijing is implementing several deals under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor plan. India opposes the corridor, saying it passes through Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, which India claims.
But none of their neighbours wants a conflict between the two giants. After complaining about China’s attempt to build a road on Bhutanese land, Bhutan went into hibernation, signalling opposition to a Sino-Indian war.
India sees itself as a regional “big brother”. But its little siblings are bent on protecting their own interests and China misses no opportunity to use this to solidify its position in the region.
India sees bilateral relations with China as favouring its adversary, leading New Delhi to oppose a China-led regional trade pact and a dramatic opening of the Indian market to Chinese consumer goods.
Until New Delhi and Beijing can resolve their border disputes, the region will continue to be held back. With public attitudes in China and India against granting concessions, which limits flexibility, both sides need to champion pragmatism, for the good of everyone in the region.
- B. Z. Khasru
The writer is editor of The Capital Express in New York and author of Myths and Facts Bangladesh Liberation War and The Bangladesh Military Coup and the CIA
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