Chinese Foreign Minister’s South Asian tour

The geostrategic compulsions created by the Ukraine and Afghanistan crises compelled Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to visit South Asian countries to find common ground and project a unified front with headwinds expected from the West. Within a span of six days from March 22-27, Wang Yi visited Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Nepal.

During his visit to Pakistan, Wang Yi expounded ‘four suggestions’ for development of Sino-Pakistan relations. All these suggestions revolved around benefits only for China which clearly reflects Chinese priorities for Pakistan. The emphasis was on Pakistan’s support of Chinese policies at multilateral forums, revitalization of CPEC, strengthening anti-terrorism cooperation in context of security concerns of Chinese nationals in Pakistan and close multilateral cooperation perhaps in context of cooperation on Afghanistan. While the recently announced $4.2 billion debt rollover by China would come as a relief to Islamabad, the political turmoil in Pakistan would exacerbate Beijing’s worries.

Another key feature of the visit was China’s first time participation at the OIC as a guest invitee. China perceives OIC as an important platform for its outreach to the Muslim world, to mediate for Ukraine crisis in favour of Russia, and to garner support on Afghanistan. The Foreign Minister’s surprise visit to Afghanistan was intended to signal that the Afghan issue remains important in the current international peace and security agenda for China. While the Afghan side appeared keen on Chinese finances, the Chinese side continued its rhetoric of ‘not interfering with Afghanistan’s internal affairs’. However, during March 30-31, at the 3rd Foreign Ministers’ meeting of Iran, Pakistan,
Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, China exhibited high level of financial commitment to the Taliban regime, especially in the mining sector. It is supposedly learnt that privately China did not support Pakistan’s endeavour to push for political legitimacy of the Taliban regime.

The Chinese Foreign Minister’s visit to India could be seen primarily in context of projection of a China-India alignment on the Ukrainian crisis. China issued three separate readouts of Wang Yi’s meetings with Indian leaders, with a common emphasis on delinking the border issue from the overall development of bilateral relations, contrary to the Indian stand of border issues being the centrepiece of bilateral relations. This rhetoric, that found consonance in Chinese media and social media as well, is aimed at propagating Beijing’s image as a benevolent regional player who is willing to set differences aside for strengthening bilateral relations.

Wang Yi’s last stop of his South Asian tour was Nepal. His trip to Nepal gave rise to speculation that implementation of BRI projects would find a major push during the visit. For Nepal, financing of BRI projects appears a key roadblock, with the Nepali side looking for grants rather than loans from China. Though BRI featured in all the official Chinese handouts of Wang Yi’s meetings, none of the nine agreements signed
were related to the BRI. China, however, conveyed its support for Nepalese request for up-gradation to ‘Observer’ status with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Beijing appears to be feeling the pressure, with the US drawing parallels of Ukraine with Taiwan, and Europe asking Beijing to mediate with Russia to stop the war. China obviously does not want to be clubbed or isolated with Russia in the current scenario, and is looking to garner support. Wang Yi’s reference to Asia becoming a ‘chessboard of game between major powers’ reflects Beijing’s apprehension that the US may use the India card as a geopolitical tool in its rivalry with China. The larger aim of China’s regional initiatives, however, remains a concern.