Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the BRICS summit last year. Photo: AFP
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the BRICS summit last year. Photo: AFP

China’s global political expansion is on the march. Mao Zedong’s Ministry of Foreign Liaison initiated the 1996-2001 Maoist insurgency in Nepal that set the stage for that country’s communist takeover. Now, Nepalese communists are uniting to form the Himalayan nation’s largest left-wing party – and Nepal is becoming a Chinese-backed control center for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as part of China’s aim to limit India’s strategic space.

In Pakistan, China has successfully targeted the power-wielding military. Chinese successes include the ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Gwadar deep-sea port in Balochistan province, and a People’s Liberation Army base in close proximity to Skardu in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Another PLA base is planned for Jiwani in the Gulf of Oman, and there is speculation over one more military base to be set up in the troubled  Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Meanwhile, China has flexed its financial muscle, buying up 40% of shares listed on the Karachi Stock exchange.

Elsewhere in the region, China allied itself with Abdulla Yameen, the president of Maldives, leading to the ongoing development of  Gaadhoo island as a PLA support base of considerable strategic value. Neighboring Sri Lanka fell under the influence of China’s policy of “debt-book diplomacy,” surrendering control of Hambantota Port for 99 years. China has also invested heavily in Bangladesh, where it recently bought 25% of the shares on the Dhaka Stock Exchange.

China has politically and economically won over Cambodia and Laos to prevent the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) raising issues against China. It is also using sophisticated means to suppress criticism, cultivate relationships and exert influence over the Australian political, business and academic worlds.

According to Professor Clive Hamilton, author of the controversial book Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia, Chinese influence-peddling and espionage are eroding Australian sovereignty. Australia’s major political parties have also been known to accept millions of dollars in donations from Chinese immigrant businessmen.

Similar fears have been expressed with respect to New Zealand, where China’s foreign-influence campaign is accused of co-opting local elites, securing access to strategic information and resources, and manipulating public discourse. Critics claim that in doing so, it successfully undermines New Zealand’s political system and threatens its sovereignty.

China’s Confucius Institutes are being used to influence regional narratives while it is also investing heavily in educational institutions globally. In the US, the Chinese are quietly buying out colleges that are low on finances.

But how vulnerable is India to China’s political warfare?

India’s Communist leaders turn up in Beijing regularly, in search of support and money. During last year’s 73-day long Doklam India-China standoff, the Chinese ambassador to New Delhi, despite regularly being heard to “threaten” India, was frequently to be found socializing with opposition leaders, and was seen in Darjeeling at a time when Ghorkaland separatists brought unrest to the streets.

Of the 1,866 political parties registered with India’s Election Commission (56 recognized “registered” national or state parties), many are content to ally themselves with militants. India’s Maoist movement, despite owing its origins to Russia, is now linked with Nepal’s Maoists and supported by both China and Pakistan.

In 2014, after the Supreme Court questioned foreign funding of India’s two major political parties, the government surreptitiously – and retroactively – amended the Foreign Currency Regulations Act. That no political party objected to this may be an indicator of their unwillingness to see the spotlight fall on their own activities.

Multiple funding avenues can now be used to influence political parties and the media aligned with them, with the latter being easy to spot. Reports in January 2014 indicated corrupt politicians had illegally siphoned billions of dollars out of India, often using illegal remittance channels operated out of Pakistan.

One independent Indian parliamentarian claims that this has led to 19 Indian politicians being influenced, possibly even compromised, by Pakistan’s ISI. The rot obviously runs across the board; India’s 2017 agreement with Swiss banks to disclose names of Indian account holders is to become effective only in 2019, leaving offenders plenty of time to move illegally held funds.

Indian ethnographic divisions have long been exploited by politicians as virtual vote banks, going against the very spirit of the nation’s constitution. More recently Cambridge Analytica was exploited by politicians to create yet more divisions via the caste system. Though Cambridge Analytica operations in India are now closed down, China could easily step in to fill the gap, given that it is already helping Iran monitor its citizens.

The digital revolution in India lacks adequate checks, regulations and cyber protection, meaning it can be exploited by nations with superior cyber prowess. Chinese electronics and smartphones have flooded India, and so have apps for spying and data collection.

While national security concerns sees the West imposing restrictions upon Chinese firms’ operations, India remains an open house. Furthermore, India has yet to commence work on locally crafted operating systems and Internet applications.

China and the West, meanwhile, can play India at will.

Prakash Katoch

The author retired as lieutenant general from the Indian Army's Special Forces.

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