2023 is the Year of the Rabbit which is seen as the gentlest animal in the Chinese Zodiac. This comes after the Year of the Tiger - fast and furious. But the Rabbit is good at adapting and can move rapidly cutting through multiple furrows of uncertainty. A Rabbit can also protect itself and indicates strong confidence and strength with resoluteness towards goals despite the obstacles.
Applied to the India China dyad despite operating on different zodiac systems 2023 denotes to be a year of continued competition cum confrontation. The confrontation of the military kind is easy to guess which may occur on the Northern borders as the Yangtze clash on December 09 indicates. Competition could be in many spheres geographic and topical.
In 2022, China was engaged in internal political consolidation for President and General Secretary Xi Jinping.
Now that the same is out of the way after the 20th Congress has established primacy of the Xi regime so to say, the pathway to regional and global domination will be resumed rapidly and at a faster pace than before.
From the Indian perspective Chinese presence in South Asia – New Delhi’s regional sphere of influence – Neighbourhood First assumes significance for that would be an area of contestation not just competition.
Yet China seems to have started at an advantage in the beginning of the New Year 2023 with a communist left party led coalition assuming power in Nepal, Pakistan continuing to be the favourable “ally,” regionally and umpteen opportunities in other states through political, diplomatic and economic influence.
Most importantly several countries in South Asia will face parliamentary or presidential elections. From the military regime ruled Myanmar to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Maldives polls are to be held this year which may provide Beijing an opportunity to swing the tide in its favour using tools fair and foul.
With success in Nepal under the belt the Chinese could perceive a higher level of confidence and advantage. That the Chinese political, diplomatic and development machinery is nimble is evident with a few projects declared for Nepal days after the CPN Maoist Centre Leader Prachanda or Pushpa Kamal Dahal was sworn in as the Prime Minister.
The aim is to give a fillip to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects which have been lying fallow for some time. An attempt could also be made to open up trade and transit including energy routes to the North with China through Tibet despite the harsh terrain and logistics challenges faced.
Afghanistan may be a challenge for China given despite almost 16 months of defacto authority of the Taliban in power in Kabul there has been a breakthrough in only one mining and energy project with China’s CAPEIC (Xinjiang Central Asia Oil and Gas Company) in the Amu Darya Basin in the North on January 05.
The highly ambitious extension of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and linking with the Belt and Road Initiative will remain poor for now.
Extra regional influence is also expected to grow as the first container ship of Chinese goods landed in the joint India Iran Chabahar port on December 31.
The port is operated by India Ports Global and has seen greater maritime traffic than neighouring Gwadar in Pakistan which despite being a CPEC project has not seen many ships unloading. Apart from lack of hinterland, there are law and order and terror challenges in this zone whereas Chabahar is secure.
How an increase in Chinese traffic at the port will be handled by India in conjunction with Iran remains to be seen?
To sum up China may have a comprehensive advantage over India in Pakistan, while the influence in countries as Afghanistan, Nepal and Myanmar may be overwhelmingly wider.
On the other hand a tough contest for influence can be envisaged in Bangladesh Sri Lanka and Maldives.
Having understood the Chinese game to some extent India may be better prepared to meet these challenges, yet there are hurdles that can be envisaged apart from constraint of resources in comparative terms to the focus on managing the Chinese military expansion on the Northern borders as well as the maritime sphere.
This may tie down the Indian leadership which will also be working towards general elections in the country which will be held in the first half of 2024.
Indeed, Beijing’s calculations may have factored in this important event and how it would shape the same is a subject for another day.
Yet there could be one critical uncertainty internally for China – the spread of COVID 19 – while numbers are unclear for now – the impact is likely to wear down the Party as well as the State authorities in Beijing.