Professor Thussu says, ”Although New Delhi remains a traditional friend of Dhaka, the growing presence of China in Bangladesh and elsewhere in South Asia, makes it difficult for Hasina to prioritize India over China: the scale and depth of Chinese investment, aid etc. can’t be matched by India.”
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s four-day state visit to India in September 2022 and her meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, resulted in the signing of seven Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) on key issues related to connectivity, energy, water resources, trade investment, border management security, development partnership and regional multilateral matters between the two nations. Media reports in India and Bangladesh have extensively highlighted the fact that the two countries, who are also "intimate" neighbours in the region, have initiated a new chapter in strengthening bilateral ties, as an extension of what has been consistently and favourably developing between the Modi administration in India and the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League government in Bangladesh.
The two nations have also embarked on signing a comprehensive economic partnership agreement, titled Bangladesh-India Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) which is aimed at reducing the huge trade gap between Bangladesh and India, and opening up new economic opportunities. An understanding of the perspective of Bangladesh’s largest trading partner China on such a bilateral trade partnership and overall strengthening of Indo-Bangladesh ties leads to an intriguing line of enquiry on whether Beijing is observing the developments with ease or caution and what can be a probable threat for China, an all-weather friend of Bangladesh.
Analysing the impact of emerging giants China and India on the geopolitics of global communication, professor of international communication at the Hong Kong Baptist University’s (HKBU) journalism department, Dr Daya Thussu, states that Bangladesh is not a particular priority for Beijing which is much more focused on dealing its deteriorating relations with the West and with India. According to Professor Thussu, China’s economic clout in South Asia is bigger than that of India and Dhaka will continue to cultivate Beijing while maintaining good relations with its big Western neighbour. Professor Thussu says, ”Although New Delhi remains a traditional friend of Dhaka, the growing presence of China in Bangladesh and elsewhere in South Asia, makes it difficult for Hasina to prioritize India over China: the scale and depth of Chinese investment, aid etc. can’t be matched by India.”
A veteran journalist and the first native Chinese to be appointed the Head of Chinese department at the BBC, Raymond Li observes, ”I think China would see the visit as a relationship mending one, as both countries (India and Bangladesh) are trying to improve the ties which have turned sour, since the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act by India in December 2019. In other words, China wouldn’t worry about the visit. In fact, PM Hasina also inaugurated the eighth bridge built by China in her country, one day ahead of her visit to India, and such a move is widely seen by analysts as a balancing act played by PM Hasina.”
Li, who is currently the Department Head and Professor of Practice at HKBU, says that Hasina’s visit to India is very important for both India and Bangladesh. ”For Delhi, it would like to resume the close relationship with Bangladesh and prevent the latter from becoming an ally of China. For Dhaka, it is also crucially important to keep equal distance with China and India, rather than leaning on any sides”, highlights Li.
Had the two neighbouring countries signed any strategic partnership agreements, on starting any military cooperation, that would have alerted China, argues Li.
An expert on China’s developmental trajectory and Chinese foreign policy, Professor Daniel Christopher Lynch, of the City University of Hong Kong, wonders whether China would have any particular objection to Hasina’s India visit or whether Indo-Bangladesh strengthened bilateral ties could somehow damage China’s interests. He points out that ”the more prosperous Bangladesh becomes from economic exchanges with India, the more it can buy from China”. According to Professor Lynch, ”China will understand from a geopolitical perspective that the smaller states of South Asia will always view India with some suspicion and therefore will always want to maintain good relations with outside powers, particularly rising China.”
A week after the Indo-Bangladesh bonhomie in New Delhi, leaders of the two Asian giants, India and China met at the 22nd Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand in Uzbekistan but there were no bilateral talks between Modi and President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the summit. While some Chinese scholars believe that Beijing is suspicious of New Delhi’s tilt towards US policies to contain China, a different perspective is also emerging.
The Communist Party of China(CPC) will convene its 20th National Congress in Beijing in October where it will formulate programs of action and overarching policies to meet China’s new development goals on the journey ahead in the new era and the new expectations of the people as mentioned by Xi in his speech at the SCO summit. That would require active initiatives from Beijing to induce reciprocal measures from New Delhi for a growth trajectory that brings both the Asian giants closer and inspires strengthened bilateral and multilateral ties between and among the smaller states of South Asia and the region at large.
(The author, is a journalist-turned-interdisciplinary academic with over 18 years of experience in broadcast and digital media and research across Asia and Europe. is a PhD scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University. He has been producer of BBC’s flagship talkshow HARDtalk. Views are personal).