The PM’s China visit
A friendship that has given both political and economic dividends
M Shahidul Islam
It is undeniable that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has, quite deftly, made the most of the fast-changing regional and global geopolitics, eventually emerging as a strong leader in South Asia. The country’s lacklustre institutional development and its deeply divided politics has made it susceptible to external influence. Given its historical ties with Bangladesh and the geographic reality, India closely observes the country’s political development, and successive governments in New Delhi have backed the Hasina government. However, one noticed China’s shifting stance towards the Awami League government immediately after the general elections of 2014. It was China and India’s strong support to the AL administration that facilitated downplaying the United States (US) and European Union’s concerns over the country’s electoral process and human rights violations, among others.
The 2014 poll was a crucial turning point bringing Beijing closer to the AL government. This coincided with the US’ weakening position in South Asia’s geopolitics. Since then, there has been a tectonic shift in the Sino-Bangladesh economic landscape. While the trade and military relations have been strong for the past few decades, China has emerged as the country’s top investor in recent years.
With Beijing’s political and economic backing, the government has undertaken a host of mega projects in the country aimed at improving its infrastructure. There is, of course, substantial investment from Japan and other countries. Some even see Bangladesh becoming next Vietnam, thanks to the growing presence of Chinese companies in the country with cash and technology.
Besides trade and investment, there has been a spike in people-to-people contacts and cultural relations. An increasing number of Bangladeshi students are being granted scholarships by Chinese universities. One notices the growth of Chinese language learning centres in Bangladesh to cater to the growing demand for human resources given the rise in Chinese men and machine in the country.
Sheikh Hasina too has reciprocated it, extending her strong support to the Beijing-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). She even urged India to join the initiative. India and the US are two major countries that have declined to be part of the BRI. Dhaka and Beijing are on a firm footing to develop the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridor. In dealing with the Rohingya refugee problem, where China has an enormous stake given its relations with Myanmar, the action of Dhaka did not cause much concern for Beijing.
While the changing geopolitics is playing a role in moulding China-Bangladesh relations, some economic forces are causing the convergence of the two countries’ economic interests much faster than ever. China is the biggest economic story of our time. According to McKinsey, despite a slowdown in its GDP growth, which has hovered around 6 to 6.5 percent in the past few years, China is adding the equivalent of “another Australia” every year. The country accounted for about 10 percent of global outward foreign direct investment (FDI) in 2017, up from just about one percent in 2000. Being the largest trading nation, China is the leading source of thousands of products, and the heart of the global supply chain. It is the second largest importer in the world.
Nonetheless, China has been dominating headlines in recent years not so much for its trade and investment might. There is hardly any precedence in history that a country which is far behind the top economy (the United States at present) in per capita income is competing fiercely with it on the technology front. The Middle Kingdom is home to some of the leading enterprises of telecom, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, among others, generating economic tensions with the US. China has become a global giant in financial technology. The country’s mobile payments market, for instance, is worth more than USD 5.5 trillion, 50 times greater than the US’ volume. There is a growing footprint of Chinese financial entities in South Asia.
In Bangladesh, the Shanghai and Shenzhen Stock Exchanges acquired 25 percent stakes of Dhaka Stock Exchange. The Ant Financial, the financial services affiliate of e-commerce giant Alibaba, has invested in bKash, Bangladesh’s largest mobile financial service provider. Technological cooperation between China and Bangladesh could be the next big story, thanks to the speedy digitisation in both countries.
Amid a host of economic dynamics in the Chinese economy and its growing influence in the regional geopolitical sphere, Sheikh Hasina’s policy to strengthen ties with China has been paying dividends, both politically and economically. Not to mention, China is one of the five permanent members of the United Nations.
Economically, while China has become the top investor in Bangladesh, the volume is much lower than what was expected following President Xi’s visit to Bangladesh in 2016. Despite the recent surge in FDI, Bangladesh remains one of the lowest FDI recipient economies compared its GDP size. However, following PM Hasina’s recent visit to China, one might expect a further increase in Chinese investment in Bangladesh.
No government in the past had the privilege to have access to the deep pockets of Beijing as the Hasina-led current government has today. However, her success and the merit of Chinese investment in Bangladesh would be judged based on two factors—first, how economically feasible the China-funded projects are; and second, to what extent those projects are insulated from corruption. The recent experience does not bode well at all as the per unit infrastructure cost in Bangladesh is one of the highest in the world. Besides, Beijing’s investment in some strategic projects in South Asia and elsewhere in the world has fuelled geopolitical tensions, notably in the Indian Ocean regions. Nonetheless, successive governments in Bangladesh have so far made a balance among key regional and global powers.
To sum up, amid the new political reality in Bangladesh and the fast-changing geopolitics in the region in the midst of a de facto withdrawal of the United States from South Asia, Hasina-led AL has managed the relations with China and India well. AL’s new yet less publicised political thought, which apparently focuses more on development than democracy, has made Beijing the most important economic partner of the country. The success of such models, as we have seen elsewhere in Asia, notably in the East, largely depends on a sustained economic growth with job creation, better provisions of infrastructure and other services, among others. It is in this context that one can expect even more Chinese involvement in Bangladesh’s development agenda in the future.
M Shahidul Islam is a doctoral candidate at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST), China, and research fellow at the Center for Governance Studies (CGS), Bangladesh.
This analysis originally appeared in The Daily Star