China challenge goes domestic

As India goes through its elections, it is worth remembering that in the wider Asian region, too, electoral churn is taking place. From Indonesia to the Philippines, from Afghanistan to Thailand, and from Australia to Sri Lanka, this is the year of the voter in the region. Even North Korea held its sham election of deputies to the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) in March which, for the first time, saw a North Korean leader not participating as a candidate. There will be change in some countries while some countries will see continuity in the domestic political make up as a result.

But what makes these elections interesting to watch is how the changing global balance of power is shaping the electoral discourse in many of the nations. China is now an important variable in the way the domestic political milieu is being redrawn in many countries, exemplifying not only China’s growing heft in global politics but also a sense of unease about the role it has begun to play in the world, in the region and in some cases even within certain states.

Elections in Indonesia saw economic nationalism moving to the centre stage of electoral politics. President Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, who is seeking a second term, has been very solicitous of Chinese investments in Indonesia, including a multibillion-dollar high-speed railway between Jakarta and the city of Bandung in Java and infrastructure projects like power plants. His rival Prabowo Subianto, a retired army general, on the other hand, has been very critical of the way China goes about its economic business, leading to excessive foreign interest, debt and a lack of involvement of the locals in projects.

Reminiscent of Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohammad, Prabowo has claimed that he would reduce Indonesia’s dependence on China, though how exactly he would do so remains far from clear. Where Jokowi has embraced China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) warmly, Prabowo has suggested that existing projects should be reviewed to see if Indonesia can get a “better deal”. While ties with China might continue unperturbed after the elections, what is clear is that China’s growing role in Indonesia has sparked a debate which is unlikely to subside even after the new president takes over.

This is something that Australia has been engaged with for quite some time now, but the last few years has seen the China factor emerging with even greater potency. Australia has for decades managed to navigate its foreign policy between China, its largest trading partner, and the US, its main strategic alliance partner. It was all going well till China became a truly regional power and started asserting itself more forcefully. As China’s role in Australian domestic politics started becoming more prominent, Canberra was forced to reassess its ties.

A prominent Australian senator, Sam Dastyari, had to resign in 2017 over accusations of lobbying for Beijing and taking money from Chinese-born political donors. This led Canberra to pass a foreign interference law, requiring lobbyists for other countries to register and disclose their activities. It also banned Huawei, the Chinese technology giant, from participating in the building of a fifth-generation telecommunications network. The China challenge is now out in the open and both main political parties of Australia are having to contend with it. As the wider Indo-Pacific region remakes itself in a time of unprecedented strategic flux, whoever will come to power will be faced with this most significant foreign policy challenge that Australia has faced in generations.

The South Asian neighbours of India — Afghanistan and Sri Lanka — will also be voting later this year. China’s subtle presence in the Afghanistan debate via its proxy Pakistan will shape not only the ongoing dialogue with the Taliban but also the long-term viability of a stable Afghanistan. In Sri Lanka, China will have an overt presence. In the previous presidential election, Maithripala Sirisena was the one challenging China’s growing footprint in Sri Lanka while Mahinda Rajapaksa was defending his close ties to Beijing. Once he came to office, Sirisena recognised that the challenge of managing China’s growing economic footprint is not that simple. Hambantota had to be handed over to China on a 99-year lease, after all.

In Indian elections, China has only played a subtler role. While the focus of the electoral rhetoric has been on Pakistan, serious policymakers of both main political parties recognise that the real challenge is China. China’s role in shielding Pakistan in global platforms and of scuttling India’s entry into the global high table is now much more visible. India’s Pakistan problem is a subset of India’s China problem now.

China’s dramatic rise is reshaping the global balance of power. But even before states have had enough time to adjust to this structural reality, they are realising that even domestic politics is not immune from the impact of the rise of China. In that sense, domestic is the new global.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, and Professor of International Relations, King’s College, London)

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