- Beijing’s foreign ministry budget has been growing by 11 per cent a year and will soon match that of the European Union
- But observers say China focuses too much on other nations’ political elite and not enough on ordinary people
China is putting more effort into cultivating ties with key politicians in Central and South Asian countries to extend its reach in the region, and in some cases even influence elections in its favour, according to a new US research report.
The diplomatic push is being supported with bigger budgets, with spending by the foreign ministry set to match that of the European Union by 2027 if it continues to grow at a similar pace.
Between 2000 and 2017, Chinese officials made 1,039 visits to South Asia and 722 visits to Central Asia, according to a study by AidData, a research lab at the College of William & Mary in the United States.
The most popular destinations were Nepal, with 129 official visits in the period, and Sri Lanka, with 102.
In Nepal, Chinese officials have met most of the country's Communist leaders. The report said Beijing had provided financial support to the election campaigns of several Nepalese politicians and that Chinese officials accompanied them on visits to their home constituencies, though it added that such a practice was not unique to China.
The cultivation of top-level ties in Nepal is crucial to China's geopolitical ambitions, as the landlocked nation is seen as being in India's backyard.
The AidData report was compiled from 206 interviews with government officials, diplomats and think tanks involved in the region, some of whom said Beijing should be credited with nudging the merger of Maoist former rebels and the liberal Communist UML in Nepal, which set the stage for their victory in the 2017 election, defeating the pro-India Nepali Congress party.
In Sri Lanka, a local politician was quoted as saying that Beijing provided "mobile phones and tours" to visiting officials, and promised development deals in their hometowns.
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Cultivating ties is part of Beijing's diplomacy effort in the region, much of which is in support of its massive infrastructure and investment plan known as the Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing's spending on infrastructure totalled US$120 billion in the 2000-17 period.
The strategy has also been applied to Central Asia, which recorded 722 visits during the same period. For example, Li Zhanshu, the chairman of the National People's Congress " China's rubber stamp legislature " visited Kazakhstan in September following local protests about Chinese investments in the country.
But observers have questioned if such elite ties can help improve people's perceptions about China.
In Kazakhstan, the report's researchers found that despite it cultivating ties with the political elite, local people were "generally sceptical of Beijing" over investment, Chinese migrants and the treatment of Uygurs.
"There is a difference between the elite level and the common people," said Oyuna Baldakova, a visiting fellow at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin.
"When it comes to the general population, this strategy can affect China's image, and allow xenophobia and the fear of China's presence in the region tends to rise," she said, adding that Beijing would benefit from moving beyond the elites and engaging more with local people, including NGOs and businesses.
James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said there was significant anti-Chinese sentiment in Central Asia. It was driven by the situation in Xinjiang and the way Chinese firms involved in infrastructure developments in the region tended to use their own materials and workers, meaning local economies failed to benefit.
China's foreign ministry budget rose by about 11 per cent a year in the 2000-17 period, from 30 billion yuan (US$4.3 billion) to 62.71 billion yuan.
By comparison, US President Donald Trump in March said he planned to cut the state department's budget by 23 per cent to US$40 billion.
The EU, meanwhile, plans to set its annual external affairs budget at Euro20.5 billion (US$22.9 billion) for the 2021-27 period, according to official figures.
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Beijing sees building bridges with top political figures as a way to smooth the running of its foreign projects and initiatives, and observers have said Chinese officials are more at home dealing with leaders than the general public who might have resentment towards the schemes.
But the approach comes with risks, as Beijing discovered in Myanmar, when the China-backed Myitsone dam was suspended in 2011 when newly elected president Thein Sein bowed to public resentment towards the scheme.
Despite Beijing's efforts in Sri Lanka, the country's new President Gotabaya Rajapaksa chose India ahead of Beijing for his first state visit in November.
While in New Delhi, Rajapaksa appealed to India and other nations to provide "alternatives" to the belt and road plan, and invest more in his country.
He left with US$400 million worth of credit for infrastructure development projects, although Beijing had earlier in the year promised to provide a loan of almost US$1 billion to cover 85 per cent of the cost of its new Central Expressway project.
At a meeting on Monday, China's ambassador to Sri Lanka and the host nation's minister of motorways, ports and shipping, agreed to pursue more infrastructure projects, including a new port in capital Columbo.
Madhav Nalapat, a professor of geopolitics at Manipal University in southern India, said: "India has an organic connection with South Asia that China does not have. Money from the government is not the most important component of India's economic engagement with Sri Lanka."
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