Beijing and New Delhi are hotly competing for influence in Bangladesh but Dhaka has good cause to be suspicious of both
Bangladesh is in the middle of rising Indian and Chinese competition for South Asian influence, a position that could benefit or imperil the Muslim majority developing nation of over 161 million people.
On one hand, Bangladesh enjoys robust strategic ties with India, witnessed in just- completed joint naval exercises with India where the two sides held surface warfare drills in the Bay of Bengal.
On the other, China is bankrolling billions of dollars worth of needed infrastructure projects in Bangladesh, checkbook diplomacy that has helped to pull the two sides closer together than perhaps ever in their modern history.
Which of the two Asian giants has more sway in Dhaka these days is debatable. But with India distracted with a spiraling Covid-19 epidemic and with several unresolved bilateral sore points, China may have an upper hand, one it is now seeking to consolidate to its strategic advantage.
Bangladesh, of course, cannot escape the geographical reality that it is almost completely surrounded by India with a 4,096-kilometer shared border. Robust and cordial ties with India are thus critical for Bangladesh’s economic development and national security.
Most crucially, Bangladesh’s water supply is dependent on rivers that flow into the country from neighboring India. Water sharing issues have badly strained bilateral relations, a conflict that China has sought to leverage to its own advantage.
After failing to secure a water-sharing agreement with India over the Teesta river, the fourth-longest river in the country that flows from India, Bangladesh turned to China to develop a US$1 billion agreement to prevent floods and erosion during rains and water shortages in the dry season.
At the same time, as the Bangladeshi newspaper Daily Star reported on October 7, work on almost all nine China-funded projects worth $7.1 billion is reportedly moving ahead.
Those include a multi-purpose rail and road bridge on the Padma river (known as the Ganges in India) built by the state-owned China Major Bridge Engineering Company, a telecom network modernization program and upgrades to the national power system.
A view of the multipurpose road-rail Padma bridge across the Padma River is under construction near Dhaka, Bangladesh on Sunday, August 9, 2020. Photo: AFP Forum via Nur Photo/Syed Mahamudur Rahman
With annual bilateral trade valued at approximately $15 billion, China is Bangladesh’s largest trading partner. Trade with India is only slightly more than a third of that amount.
Dhaka and Beijing also forged a strategic partnership when Chinese president Xi Jinping visited Bangladesh in 2016. On the occasion, Bangladesh formally joined Xi’s Belt and Road infrastructure-building initiative.
The groundwork has also been laid for stronger strategic ties. Bangladesh’s military is now equipped with Chinese tanks, Chinese-built frigates and submarines and Chinese-made fighter jets.
Bangladeshi military personnel receive training in China while Chinese military delegations pay regular visits to Bangladesh, raising antennae in New Delhi.
But China hasn’t gotten everything that it wants in Bangladesh. During Xi’s 2016 visit, the Chinese leader proposed 27 major infrastructure projects under the BRI but so far only nine have broken ground.
Most analysts would argue China’s main interests in Bangladesh are not bridges and electric power systems but rather access to its strategic ports on the Bay of Bengal.
China is keen to build a new deep seaport in Bangladesh, as part of a wider scheme to secure its power and influence in the Indian Ocean. That is seen in China’s investments in the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, the Kyaukphyu port in Myanmar, Gwadar in Pakistan and the establishment of a naval base in Djibouti, China’s first overseas military base.
So far, Beijing has only received a pledge made in November last year by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina that it may use Bangladesh’s two major ports at Chittagong and Mongla for trade.
Hasina’s commitment to China came just weeks after Dhaka signed an agreement with New Delhi for access to the same ports, including for sending goods to the isolated states in India’s northeast known as the “Seven Sisters.” Those often restive states are connected with the rest of India through a narrow strip of land between northern Bangladesh and Bhutan.
At the same time, the Rohingya refugee crisis has hampered China-Bangladesh relations. In June 2019, Dhaka asked for Beijing’s support for what Foreign Minister Abul Kalam Abdul Momen termed “the safe and dignified return of Rohingya Muslims to their own land in Myanmar.”
Currently, there are around a million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, most of them living in squalid camps in the already densely populated nation’s southeast. Momen said that “China has been playing a role in favor of Bangladesh on the Rohingya issue.”
That is highly unlikely, however, given the strategic importance China places on maintaining strong relations with Myanmar, the only country that provides China with direct access via land to the Indian Ocean. Myanmar has made it abundantly clear that it does not want the return of the Rohingyas, who many there consider “illegal migrants” from Bangladesh.
Soon after the August 2017 attacks by the insurgent Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on Myanmar security forces, crude assaults which prompted the Myanmar military’s brutal clear operations that forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas to flee across the border, China showed its hand.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said: “The Chinese side condemns the violent attacks that happened in Rakhine state of Myanmar [and] supports Myanmar’s efforts to safeguard the peace and stability of Rakhine state.”
Chinese officials have also warned Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations with which they have contacts to refrain from dealing with ARSA or similar outfits. That’s because China believes they are or could be connected with Muslim militants in Asia, including the Uighurs it holds in vast detention camps in western Xinjiang state.
Indeed, all that Hasina received when she visited China in July 2019 was a promise to send some 2,500 tonnes of rice to the refugees, hardly a superpower overture to help broker a solution to the still vexed issue.