Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh was on an official visit to China from 1-6 July 2019. During the visit she attended the 13th Summer Davos Forum in Dalian. She met Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Premier Li Keqiang, among other top officials of China.
The visit underlies the role envisaged for China by Hasina to aid Bangladesh in its socio-economic development which has a target of becoming a middle-income country by 2021 and a developed nation by 2041. Toward this end, the countries agreed to increase economic and industrial cooperation which is already afoot between the nations. Among others, one of the highlights of the visit included their commitment to facilitate the role of the BCIM Economic Corridor in promoting cooperation and development of Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar and region was reaffirmed during the visit. The visit was also used as an opportunity by China to emphasize its involvement in promoting dialogue between the countries involved for the return of those who have been displaced. The Prime Minister of Bangladesh, on her return from China, fiercely dismissed a proposal put forward by a US Congressperson who suggested that Bangladesh absorb the territory in Myanmar from where the displaced had originated. During the visit, nine pacts were inked on issues related to the Rohingya, cooperation on economic and technical issues, investment and the power sector, as well as culture and tourism.
India’s concerns of growing proximity between the two nations are conditioned on several issues. First, China has also been emerging as a significant strategic partner for Bangladesh as evidenced by the signing of the China-Bangladesh Strategic Partnership of Cooperation in 2016. If one paraphrases Sun Tzu, such strategic closeness of Bangladesh with China, can only be understood in zero-sum terms by India, as both countries covet close strategic ties with the same country and ground covered by one of them entails ground which is essentially lost for the other.
Bangladesh is also a party to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which intends to increase connectivity between member countries but has been opposed by India due to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which is proposed on contentious lands. Having an immediate neighbour involved in the BRI suggests further diplomatic frustration for India’s ambitions in the region. China’s steady involvement in Bangladesh as an investor is also a point of concern for India as more often than not such economic investments owing to indebtedness turn into strategic strongholds for China as in the case of Sri Lanka.
Bangladesh and China reiterated the improvements in the construction of projects involving Chinese investments which as per the joint statement released after the visit include – 8th China-Bangladesh Friendship Bridge, China-Bangladesh Friendship Exhibition Center, Padma Bridge Rail Link Project, Multi-lane road tunnel under the river Karnaphuli, Installation of Single Point Mooring(SPM) with Double Pipe Line Project in Chattogram area. China’s intent to expand its investments in the sectors of Power, Railway, Road, Port, ICT, iron and steel and Bangladesh’s assurance of providing conducive investment ground for China were also reiterated during the visit, signalling a future where China makes immense investment related inroads into Bangldesh. The intention of establishing a China Economic and Industrial Zone in Chattogram of Bangladesh and encouragement given to investment on Chinese companies in EZs of Bangladesh are among other developments with possible strategic ramifications for India. It will provide more favourable policy environment to facilitate the investment of Chinese enterprises and ensure the security of Chinese projects and people in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh sits in a significant location of the Indian Ocean, through which straddles important commercial routes, making it a valuable strategic partner for both India and China. Its population of 160 million and its fast growing economy make it an important market for countries such as China which are looking to diversify its exports. Bangladesh has immense need to increase its overall development which explains its pursuit of both China and India. While India has been the foremost partner of Bangladesh in the past, its pursuit of China as economic and strategic partner is in tune with its intention to gather capital for its development ambitions. Since 2015, China has become its foremost trading partner and currently has a whopping and unprecedented amount of $38billion in investments in Bangladesh. China is also its biggest arms importer and has supplied Bangladesh with a range of weapons infrastructure including anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles. India has not been able to match such military and economic investments of China but has attempted to shore up its aid and military training in Bangladesh in the recent years in a bid not to become a redundant player in the country. The Prime Minister’s visit to China marks yet another step towards a much more robust China-Bangladesh relations, with certain emerging trends which could offset India’s influence in the region.
*** The author is currently teaching as an Assistant Professor in Dibrugarh University, Assam since 2013. Her research interests include international relations and riparian relations. ***