Pakistan’s decision to allow a Chinese company to take over operations of the Gwadar port in Baluchistan has raised anxiety levels in South Asia. Since Jan. 31, when reports first emerged of the Pakistani Cabinet’s decision to transfer operational control of the port to China Overseas Port Holdings, India has been worried about the strategic consequences of what is being described as the establishment of a de facto Chinese outpost in the Indian Ocean.
Many in India see the move as another bead in China’s “string of pearls” strategy of investing in port and infrastructure deals throughout South and Southeast Asia in a manner that appears to encircle India. The reality could be different, though no less disquieting for New Delhi. In October, Wang Jisi, one of China’s most influential thinkers, proposed a radical idea that he christened “March West.” Its logic is quite simple: China thinks its relations with the U.S. are becoming increasingly contentious and zero-sum. According to Wang, as Washington rebalances to East Asia, China must avoid a head-on military confrontation with America. Instead, it should fill in the gaps left by the American retreat from West Asia and the Middle East. By doing so, China will be able to decisively influence regions free from a U.S.-dominated security order or a pre-existing economic integration mechanism.
China’s prime challenge is to turn its economic prowess into political strength and soft power. It plans to achieve this by allocating more resources to forging closer relations with countries in the targeted regions through diplomatic engagements, human exchanges, foreign assistance and academic research projects. As a part of the March West strategy, China has now decided to speed up construction of the so-called New Silk Road connecting western China to Central and South Asia. China is also playing an active role in rebuilding Afghanistan. In September, Zhou Yongkang of China’s Politburo Standing Committee visited Kabul -- the first time a member of the committee had done so in five decades. During the visit, China pledged to assist in “training, funding and equipping the Afghan police.” Significantly, only a few months earlier China and Afghanistan had upgraded bilateral ties to a strategic partnership, with Afghanistan also being given observer status in the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In November, a trilateral meeting among China, Afghanistan and Pakistan provided further evidence that China is on the path to enhanced engagements in South Asia.