As Beijing becomes ever more assertive in South Asia, the costs of relying on China are likely to become more apparent

The Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh, Li Jiming, added that Dhaka will risk “significant damage” to its relationship with Beijing if it warms up to the Quad, or the quadrilateral framework that brings Australia, India, Japan and the US together.

The comments of the Chinese envoy in Dhaka last week warning Bangladesh against joining the Quad point to the new kind of challenges that the Subcontinent — including Beijing’s friends and foes — will face from the assertive superpower at its doorstep. The Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh, Li Jiming, added that Dhaka will risk “significant damage” to its relationship with Beijing if it warms up to the Quad, or the quadrilateral framework that brings Australia, India, Japan and the US together.

Why was the Chinese envoy so rude to his host nation, which has no record of offending Chinese sensibilities? Some are surprised that Li is warning Dhaka against joining a club that has no plans to invite new members, let alone Bangladesh. These reactions miss the wood for the trees. Li’s remarks were certainly not off-the-cuff; he was speaking to the Diplomatic Correspondents Association of Bangladesh. We must assume that what the envoy said was what he wanted his hosts to hear. Before we go to the substance of the remarks, let’s look for a moment at the new Chinese diplomatic style.

China always used tough language when it came to issues of its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and pushed back vigorously against any perceived attempts at interfering in its internal affairs. The aggressive style now covers a much broader range of issues. When Deng Xiaoping opened up the Chinese economy in the late 1970s and sought international cooperation for rebuilding China, Beijing’s diplomatic focus was on winning friends and influencing people. Chinese diplomats now have an explicit mandate from President Xi Jinping to boldly defend Beijing’s interests and actively shape the international discourse on the issues of the day.

The new “wolf warrior diplomacy” confronts head-on any criticism of China in the public sphere. They lecture host governments and don’t always show up when “summoned” by foreign offices. Delhi has been at the receiving end for a while — especially during the recent crises of Doklam and Ladakh. Sections of the Chinese official media have taken to ever new and creative ways of insulting India. But our South Asian neighbours, all of whom enjoy good relations with China, are only now getting a taste of Beijing’s new diplomatic medicine.

The Chinese ambassador was surely aware that the Quad has not invited Dhaka to join the party. China very closely tracks US policies in the region and the Quad is very much in its sights. In talking about Dhaka and the Quad, the ambassador was simply laying down a red line for Bangladesh.

Beijing is conscious that Bangladesh’s impressive economic performance in recent years as well as its location at the top of the Bay of Bengal littoral lends a new strategic salience to Dhaka. Beijing notes India’s growing diplomatic investment in developing a strategic partnership with Dhaka. It is also not blind to the emerging interest in Washington and Tokyo to expand cooperation with Dhaka. Bangladesh, which supports China’s Belt and Road Initiative, is open to similar infrastructure cooperation with the US, Japan and India.

Li’s public remarks about the Quad were about telling Bangladesh to resist any Indo-Pacific temptation. Pre-emption is very much part of Beijing’s strategic culture. Recall the events of September 2007, when Chinese media dubbed the annual Malabar exercises in the Bay of Bengal as the foundation for an “Asian Nato”. The exercise series that began in the early 1990s had four nations — the US, Japan, Australia and Singapore — joining India for the first time.

The media attack was followed by formal Chinese objections conveyed through diplomatic channels in all five nations. In India, Chinese objections were matched by the protests from the left parties that were a major part of the ruling UPA coalition. This prompted the nervous defence minister, A K Antony, to bar similar multilateral exercises with other nations.

Chinese objections did have political and policy consequences for India. After September 2007, Delhi became wary of deepening defence cooperation with the US. The Malabar series went back into the bilateral mode until the NDA government expanded it to include Japan in 2015 and Australia in 2020.

Ambassador Li’s remarks are indeed part of Beijing’s party line that the Quad is a “small geopolitical clique” that wants to divide Asia and contain China. And that Beijing does not take kindly to any engagement with the Quad. After all, preventing the emergence of any countervailing Asian coalition is very much the top strategic priority for China now.

If Xi’s assertive diplomacy is here to stay, what does it mean for South Asia? For one, India and China are trading places in South Asia — on diplomatic style and political substance. India’s neighbours have long resented the imperious style of the Indian ambassadors often dubbed as “pro-consuls”. Chinese envoys now seem eager to inherit the dubious mantle.

Delhi has learnt after long that too much diplomatic swag in the Subcontinent has tended to undermine the pursuit of India’s regional objectives. China, as the world’s newest superpower, probably bets that its substantive leverages — including economic, diplomatic, and military — will limit the costs while deterring smaller nations from crossing the markers that it lays down.

South Asian elites have always seethed at Delhi meddling in their internal affairs; they have held up China’s non-interventionist policy as a welcome alternative. The controversy in Dhaka should help update their past images of Beijing. In the pursuit of its growing regional interests, China is no longer reluctant to intervene. Beijing’s interventions are quite ostentatious as well. Delhi is now more circumspect than before about interventions in the region. It recognises that avoiding knee-jerk interventions is a sensible policy. Delhi also demonstrates greater patience with uncomfortable developments in the neighbourhood.

Our neighbours have always complained about India’s inefficiency in implementing economic projects and contrasted this with China’s speed and purposefulness. But they are also discovering the flip side of Chinese economic efficiency — the capacity to set and implement terms of cooperation that are not always in favour of the host nation.

For all their complaints about imperial Delhi, all the regimes in the region have had access to different sections of the Indian elite and some capacity to shape the discourse on neighbourhood policies. They may soon discover they have no political recourse at all in China’s closed political system that has become so much tighter under President Xi.

Our neighbours have long seen China as a convenient, off-the-shelf solution to balancing India. Until now, Chinese support against India seemed free of cost. As Beijing becomes ever more assertive in South Asia, the costs of relying on China are likely to become more apparent. On the face of it, having strong ties with India, China, the US, Japan and Russia does in fact increase the bargaining power of South Asia’s smaller nations with each of them. The diplomatic controversy in Dhaka is a reminder that China is not obliged to make that any easier. This is certainly not a lesson that Delhi would want to preach; nor would its neighbours listen. But each of them will discover, on their own, the joys of dealing with the new hegemon on the South Asian horizon.