By — Ratish Mehta;
A prominent political strategy adopted by the Chinese Communist party in the recent decades has been their incursions into domestic politics of various nations in and around the world. This noteworthy approach has not only required the CCP to interact with various domestic communities, but has also emboldened China’s engagement with domestic political parties as well. The Chinese side however has always refrained from presenting these interactions with political entities as having political motives, and have rather termed it as their effort to grow stronger bilateral relations with the nations concerned. It is however no secret that China is notoriously known for its capture of the political elites in nations it financially and strategically wishes to invest in. A widespread scandal in the beginning of the year in the United Kingdom regarding China trying to capture its Members of Parliament by their fundings and political engagement has been well documented and is a testimony of such methods.
China’s political engagement with Indian political parties, however, has seen many tides with varying intensities. This complex relationship has had its own set of challenges which continue to be detrimental for the future of the volatile South Asian region. However, in order to decipher this Chinese approach to the extent of its causes and effects, it is important that a similar understanding be developed through a brief review of this strategy within the South Asian region as well.
CCP’s engagement with Political Parties in South Asia
Political engagement of a sovereign government with domestic political entities is a double-edged sword; it risks the danger of the party’s image being projected negatively in domestic politics and can raise apprehensions within the government at hand regarding a foreign-nations bid to influence parties in such activities. A significant example of this method is evident in Chinese interactions with political parties in and out of power in the South-Asian region. For instance, in Bangladesh, the ruling party, the Awami league signed an MoU focused on enhancing cooperation with the CCP. A similar attempt was initiated with the leading opposition party in the country as well. In the island nation of Sri Lanka, the Chinese side has historically been known to have favourable relations with the Rajapaksa family who had remained in power for most of the past two decades. Yet, such a transactional-relationship has since been put to test due to the instability the island nation has been enduring.
Afghanistan too has been an important element in the CCP’s political outreach programme; even while the Taliban was negotiating a peace deal with the Americans in 2019, a Taliban delegation was frequently visiting China for peace talks. At the time it was seen as an indication to Taliban’s recognition of wanting to forge cordial bilateral relations with China and the potential for such relations was immediately realised. Soon after the Taliban took over Kabul last year after overthrowing the Afghan government, China was amongst the first nations to publicly state aspirations of growing their ‘friendship and cooperation further’; that too at a time when countries around the world were seen to be sceptical in making statements regarding the ongoing situation. It is no secret that China saw the importance of maintaining closer ties with the power centre in Afghanistan due to its valuable and strategic contributions to the Belt and Road Initiative.
The CCP’s bid to engage in political affinity with local political parties for the purpose of advancing its foreign policy objectives is centrally aligned around the Belt and Road Initiative. A leading example of this case is the interaction with Pakistan and its bid to grow stronger ties with political parties in the country for advancing CPEC opportunities. These engagements with multiple political parties in a sense are Chinese efforts to safeguard their economic and strategic interests in a region which sits at the heart of its multi-trillion-dollar pet project.
Complexities of China’s bid for political engagement
These alliances, interestingly, are forged by the International Liaison Department (ILD) of the CCP who have prioritized building such relationships with domestic political parties specifically in the South Asian region. The strongest of these alliances in the past year has developed with their Nepalese counterparts. The Communist Party of Nepal- Unified Marxist-Leninist’s affinity to CCP has been well documented in local and international news outlets. Certainly, ideological common ground help sow the seeds for such comradery, yet they also seem to pose significant challenges for the domestic political party involved. A noteworthy example in this case is the dilemma faced in India by the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPI-M). China’s distorted relationship with its immediate neighbour has on many occasions placed the CPI-M in conflicting positions. Even though the CPI-M has on some occasions aimed at providing a balanced view on their understanding of Chinese relations with India, their initiatives have stated otherwise. Actions such as its leaders attending the CCP’s centenary event in 2021 had led to widespread flack, especially coming at the backdrop of tense border relations between the two emerging nations.
However, it seems worthwhile to state that Chinese attempts of maintaining relations with political parties in India has been a concurrent practice. Interestingly, the CCP had signed an MoU with the Indian National Congress in 2008, details of which have not been made public yet and had led to a political storm in the country due to its ambiguous nature. In 2010, Zou Yongkang, a senior member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, visited the then in opposition Bhartiya Janta Party President Nitin Gadkari, stating that ‘the CPC attaches great importance to the contributions of BJP in India’s political life’. Not only this, in 2014, during Xi Jinping’s official visit to India during the National Democratic Alliances first term in the national government, the Chinese premier, met Sonia Gandhi, the then president of the Indian National Congress. These interactions were presented to be routine practices, yet with Chinese experience in and around India’s neighbourhood, it is important to make sense of China’s attempt to forge deeper relations with political entities in domestic politics. These engagements however have been put under severe stress post the border clashes between the two countries and have cast an umbrella of apprehension all around.
Strategic motives for CCP’s political outreach
A compelling argument for constructing relationships beyond governmental entities can be found in the economic benefits the Chinese side derives from it. China’s trade and economic aspirations in the south Asian region have been significantly rising since the past two decades. Evidence of such transactional relationships are apparent in Chinese infrastructure projects that have promised development in the regions by way of Chinese international banks. Within the Indian subcontinent, China has strategically infused funds in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal and Myanmar all in the name of promoting its Belt and Road Initiative. So much so that the last decade has elevated China into becoming Bangladesh and Sri Lanka’s biggest trading partner in goods and the second largest for Nepal. The financial assistance these countries have received from China in the form of loans during economic crisis are also a crucial case in point as well. An economic penetration of this sort would not have been possible without establishing out of the door interactions with all the major political parties in these nations; for China very well recognises the state of democratic set-ups where the government in power can change within years or even months. Thus, this strategic outlook seems to have worked in progressing economic associations even after multiple governments changing hands in these countries.
The Indian challenge to CCP’s game plan
India’s case however seems to be a bit different than its neighbouring countries; firstly, the common narrative of increasing political engagements to enhance fundings for developmental project does not concur in the Indian context due to its rejection of the BRI project. Secondly, the deteriorating relations with China post the border clash in June 2020 has resulted in Indo-Sino relations becoming a matter of domestic politics as much as it has been one in the global context. Moreover, the power dynamics of two rising powerhouses has always cast an umbrella of scepticism around any and every move that the opposing nation has attempted to take.
Political parties in India more so in today’s time than ever, have been walking a tight rope in their interactions and discussions on China. The opposition in the country wishes to encircle the government on its various methods of engagement with the Chinese side post the border clash. While on the other hand, the government in power seems to be reminding the opposition of its time in power and how their ill-decision making has led to deteriorating relations with China. However, matters of international importance and more so in the case of territorial disputes, political parties in India have tried to showcase a common stand in terms of infringement of sovereignty. Differences amongst them however deep they may have seemed, had taken a back seat in the time of crisis for the national government. China on the other hand as a rival nation has attempted to prop up territorial issues related to Kashmir and North-East India, yet a commonly shared apprehension in Indian domestic political parties has prevented Chinese political incursion as compared to the levels reached in other South Asian countries. This has also prevented the CCP from influencing behaviours of political parties that suit the Chinese interests more than it benefits the sovereign nations. In either case, it is quite relevant to state that the political parties in India would want to remain cautious in their engagement with the CCP at least until the tensions at the border de-escalate significantly.
In conclusion, it is quite evident that the Chinese Communist Party’s method of engagement with domestic parties varies depending on their bilateral relations with the nation concerned, however it is important to note that the CCP sees this method as an effective way of expanding its interest in the countries it engages politically, financially and strategically with. However, these tactics also pose a significant threat to the relationship as has emerged in some countries recently. Local animosity by the public is a lurking danger that has caused immense strain on bilateral relations. The perception of being dictated on decisions by a foreign nation does not sit well with the public of sovereign nations and examples of tensions due the very same reason are aplenty in our global world. Therefore, it seems quite important from a sovereign nation’s point of view that such intrusion of sovereignty and autonomous decision making be viewed with utmost caution.
Ratish Mehta is a post-graduate from Ambedkar University in Global Studies and holds a Bachelors degree in Political Science (Hons) from Delhi University. He can be reached out on Twitter at @ratish_mehta.