Since the liberation war of 1971 that led to Bangladesh's separation from
Pakistan, there has been a significant transformation in its relationship with
China. In the Cold War, focusing on its constant partner China supported
Pakistan and opposed separation of Bangladesh.
Being a permanent member of the UNSC, China used its veto power to prevent
Bangladesh from becoming a part of the United Nations system in 1972.
Nevertheless, full-scale bilateral relations between the two nations were
eventually established in 1975. Before this, China paid more attention to
countering Bangladesh in order reassure its ally Pakistan.
But now, China has become Bangladesh's primary trading partner, foreign
investor, trade importer, and supplier of military equipment. In the year 2020,
China went a step further and allowed 97 percent of Bangladeshi products to
enter its market duty-free.
The reason behind China's immense popularity lies in the artfully crafted
perception that it maintains political neutrality and refrains from interfering
in internal matters of Bangladesh. While Bangladeshi leaders are often
categorized as either "pro-India" or "anti-India," China remains untouched by
The foundation of the Sino-Bangladesh relationship has been built upon defence
cooperation. While China's economic presence in the country is a relatively
recent development, defence cooperation has remained the primary aspect of the
relationship. This has been evident since the 1980s, with regular high-level
visits and joint training and exercises between their armed forces to enhance
In fact, China has emerged as the largest supplier of military equipment to
Bangladesh, while also being the country's second-largest recipient of arms
exports after Pakistan. Over the past decade (2010-2019), China has accounted
for a significant 72 percent of Bangladesh's total arms imports.
India is growing sensitive to the rising relationship between Bangladesh and
China. India is concerned that Bangladesh, just like Nepal and Sri Lanka may
gradually consolidate its position closer towards the Chinese. India-China
rivalry is intensifying, with the later gaining competitive edge. In the year
2015, China emerged as Bangladesh's primary trading partner, breaking India's
monopoly on that spot which continued for four decades. As of 2019, imports from
China accounted for a significant 34 percent of Bangladesh's total imports.
Considering the fact that China was also the primary source of investment for
Bangladesh, which further strengthened their strategic partnership, it is only
natural for New Delhi to feel a sense of lagging behind. In order to address
this concern, India has employed a diverse range of strategies, albeit somewhat
unbalanced yet impactful, to counter the influence of China.
Obstacles in Bangladesh-China Relations:
Bangladesh-China relations have strengthened, but three major concerns
persist. Firstly, China's failure to address the Rohingya refugee crisis as
desired by Bangladesh may strain ties and harm China's image. Secondly, a
significant trade imbalance, with a trade deficit ratio of 1:17.3, raises
apprehensions for Bangladesh. Lastly, China's plan to build dams along the
Brahmaputra River could jeopardize vital water sources for Bangladesh.
These issues, reminiscent of historical power dynamics, align Bangladesh's
strategic choices with the evolving US-China competition in South Asia,
particularly between China and India, with Bangladesh as a pivotal arena.
Economic and Defence Relations between China and Bangladesh:
For a long time, Bangladesh has had a strong desire to establish a deep-sea port
on the Bay of Bengal. This project holds great importance for the country and is
given top priority on the national agenda. China has been persistently urging
the Bangladeshi government to undertake the Sonadia project for several decades.
However, due to India's opposition, the Sonadia project was ultimately
abandoned. Understanding the complex geopolitical situation, Bangladesh warmly
welcomed Japanese funding to construct a deep-sea port in Matarbari.
Beijing's acquisition of a 25 percent stake in Bangladesh's largest stock
market, the Dhaka Stock Exchange (DSE), by outbidding India's National Stock
Exchange (NSE), expanded their competition into new realms. The field of rivalry
between China and India extended beyond physical infrastructure to include
Feelings of animosity towards India reached their zenith when the Indian
company, Serum Institute, was unable to fulfil a pre-paid order for vaccines
from the government. Consequently, Bangladesh found itself compelled to acquire
vaccines from China as there were no other alternatives available.
2012 Padma Bridge project was a turning point which signified Bangladesh's
developmental desire as parts of China strategic expansionism. Opening in 2022
and constructed at a cost of $3.6 billion, the Padma Bridge now joins 41
districts-in southwestern Bangladesh to Dhaka. This is because the Chinese
involvement in infrastructure projects for Bangladesh has a comparative
advantage of reduced cost and compliance with regulations than those from
It is after Bangladesh joined China's Belt and Road Initiative in 2016 that
several projects have been undertaken, with defence co-operation emerging as a
key area of focus. The defence relationship between Bangladesh and China has
also increased; in the 2015-2019 period, around 74 percent of Bangladesh's arms
imports came from China. The $1.2 billion six-slot China-built submarine base,
BNS Sheikh Hasina which is located near Cox's Bazaar could pose security
challenges to Indian naval bases nearby.
During Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Bangladesh in 2016, China
committed $24 billion in loans. The amount of money actually transferred to
Bangladesh has remained a matter of secrecy. However, since then, China has
consistently supported Bangladesh financially leading to deepening diplomatic
and economic ties between Dhaka and Beijing for the last four years.
Impact on South Asian Geopolitics:
South Asian geopolitics have been affected by the strengthening of China and
Bangladesh's economic relations as well as diplomatic ties, which shape India's
consideration. When China invests in infrastructure projects in Bangladesh, it
not only helps to develop the economy of this region but also threatens India's
supremacy and control over that area.
While the increasing China-Bangladesh partnership highlights that India should
actively engage with its neighbours, advanced economic participation and
regional security issues are crucial for stability.
U.S pressure has made Bangladesh closer to China, both countries support each
other on the incidents of interfering with foreign policies. Although China
discourages Bangladesh from participating in specific programs, the latter
supports one-China policy unlike U.S. stance on Taiwan. The Awami League
government in Bangladesh has found itself drawn closer to China due, in part, to
U.S. pressure urging improvements in the country's human rights record and the
conduct of free and fair elections.
When the Biden administration refused to invite Bangladesh from its democracy
summit in 2021, the Chinese envoy Li Jiming supported Dhaka. However, when Biden
unveiled his Indo-Pacific Strategy there was pressure on Bangladesh to sign up.
Despite this, it created a dilemma for Dhaka because the Chinese had stated
their disapproval of Bangladesh participation in U.S initiative. In 2022, China
openly asserted that "Bangladesh shall not allow the cold war mentality and bloc
politics," aiming to discourage it from joining the Quad.
Indian concerns about Sino-Bangladeshi cooperation, particularly in defence and
infrastructure, have raised alarms. Despite Bangladesh assuring India that China
is an economic partner rather than a security threat, Chinese-backed
infrastructures address India's connectivity needs, utilizing Bangladeshi land
and waterways for transporting goods to the northeast.
Pragmatic considerations include resolving issues like the Teesta dispute,
intertwined with Indian internal politics. India's evolving stance on the
Rohingya issue, recognizing Bangladesh's concerns, adds complexity. Amid
escalating tensions with China, India anticipated support from Bangladesh but
faced a surprising neutral stance, emphasizing a peaceful resolution to
The present Prime Minister of Bangladesh is continuously under pressure from the
right-wing factions that have huge followership in the country for her soft
stance on India despite the latter's alleged persecution of its minorities.
The dynamic and evolving bond between China and Bangladesh holds a substantial
influence over the political terrain of South Asia, prompting India to
reconsider its strategic outlook. The robust ties encompassing security,
economy, and diplomacy between China and Bangladesh present both promising
opportunities and intricate challenges for India, especially in light of China's
escalating sway in the Bay of Bengal.
To adeptly manoeuvre through these changes, India prioritizes active involvement
with neighbouring nations, placing particular emphasis on fostering economic
collaboration and resolving security concerns to attain stability within the
region. In order to tackle the situation at hand, it is of utmost importance for
India to concentrate on constructing and enhancing its bond with Bangladesh.
This can be accomplished by giving priority to establishing stronger links and
networks, as well as engaging in economic partnerships.
It holds great significance for India to honour Bangladesh's sovereignty when it
comes to their foreign policies. By doing so, India can safeguard its own
interests amidst the shifting dynamics. In this manner, India can position
itself as a driving force that fosters collaboration and steadiness in South
Asia, thereby playing a crucial role in upholding general harmony.
Written By: Md.Imran Wahab
, IPS, IGP, Provisioning, West Bengal
Email: [email protected]
, Ph no: 983657656