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China-Bangladesh Relations And India

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.

Present Scenario:
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 such labels.

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 cooperation.

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.

Indian Concern:
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 intangible resources.

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 western countries.

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:
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 conflicts.

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

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