So far the current year has proven to be a busy one for diplomats of the major world powers who flew into South Asia’s capitals to cut deals and cooperate in combating terrorism as well as extending areas of cooperation with geopolitical implications.
The US, China and France have all been extremely active recently in shaping the future of the region with summit meetings between their leaders, and foreign ministers’ gatherings on the subcontinent. This year, as early as January, France was one of the first major powers to begin big power diplomacy in South Asia, way before the series of unfortunate and cruel terrorist attacks that were unleashed in Western Europe in the summer.
France has always been known as an independent power, often autonomous in its approach to world affairs, with its Gaullist geopolitical distance from other non-European large powers. France has invested its resources substantially into building a united Europe with its German counterpart and other Western European states to prevent world wars from happening on the continent again However, the South Asian giant appears to have an alternative option which is the possibility of developing this carrier with the US instead of Russia. Aircraft carriers appear to be a power projection tool of choice for large powers in Asia. Besides Russian and Indian carrier projects, Japan has three new helicopter carriers including the Hyuga while China is practicing maneuvers on its refurbished Ukrainian carrier Liaoning with ambitions of setting up its own carrier fleet or task force. China is reportedly building its second carrier.
The summer month of August 2016 ushered in the de facto hyper-power and another large Asian player to the sub-continent in a burst of activities. The US is probably the most important player flying into the region to talk with regional leaders about the challenges of terrorism. US Secretary of State John Kerry flew into Bangladesh with an eye on cooperation over anti-terrorist measures. Terrorists in that country had recently killed foreigners in a café.
The US was also concerned with regional affairs and John Kerry was interested in talking about peace deals in the Kashmiri region, a location in dispute between India and Pakistan. Currently Kashmir acts as a buffer zone between the two rival regional powers in South Asia.
Recent clashes had taken place in this buffer zone and the Americans were concerned about human rights issues related to such tensions. Like the French and the Russians, the US also had an economic agenda. Kerry hoped to secure more economic cooperation with his Indian counterparts as he led a group of government officials and Commerce Secretary to New Delhi.
At about the same time, China renewed its push into South Asia. Beijing reached out to Nepal based on the One Belt One Road (OBOR) policy. Some media sources highlighted Nepal’s (governed by Maoist elements in power) supposed desire to play a new balancing role between China and India.
Besides Nepal, the Foreign Ministers of China and Bhutan met with each other to talk about future ties and cooperation. Further southeast of the region, Myanmar’s Foreign Minister also recently visited Beijing to talk about the stalled dam project and China’s possible mediating role in negotiations between Myanmar’s government and rebel forces, some of whom are ethnic Chinese or, at times, have had access to Chinese authorities.
Besides this flurry of activities, there was also talk about Beijing revitalizing its approach to South Asia through provinces like Yunnan that share common boundaries. Yunnan is a component of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) initiative.
If China succeeds in gearing Yunnan for a southern approach to South Asia, then it effectively has pincer-like economic corridors moving into South Asia when paired off with its established cooperation with Pakistan (a loyal Chinese ally known as “ironclad brother”) in the north.
In conclusion, South Asia has emerged as an area of big power rivalry as well as cooperation. It appears counterterrorism measures are ranking as high as geopolitical agendas in large power diplomacy in that region.
But large powers and their enterprises are pragmatic in mixing business deals with political talk, with an eye on the lucrative commercial potential of South Asian states, particularly in the areas of military weapons sales (directly linked to the geopolitical and counterterrorism aspects), trade augmentation, and large infrastructure projects.