China’s growing investment and expanding economic activities in Bangladesh do not necessarily enable it to influence Dhaka’s foreign policy decisions, or seize infrastructure if loans are not repaid, or even potentially secure its support in a regional conflict, writes Rupak Bhattacharjee for South Asia Monitor
Amid rapidly changing global and regional geopolitical settings and the consequent security alignment of major Indo-Pacific powers, China’s close partnership with key Indian Ocean littoral state Bangladesh is facing testing times in recent months. Bangladesh is increasingly becoming confident of its potential of playing a pivotal role in the Indo-Pacific region with a thriving export-oriented economy accompanied by relative political stability, strategic location in the Indian Ocean and showing its determination to pursue an independent foreign policy. China, its largest foreign investor and trading partner, is therefore becoming nervous about losing its economic leverage in the region and has been displaying an authoritarian style in conducting diplomatic relations with Dhaka as well as interaction with Bangladeshi nationals.
Over the years, China has developed huge stakes in several key sectors of Bangladesh’s fast-growing economy. The Asian giant’s investments in Bangladesh have been growing steadily after 2013 when the flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – a global infrastructure development strategy adopted by the Chinese government in 2013 to invest in nearly 70 countries and international organizations - was launched. The pace and volume of investment suddenly accelerated after Bangladesh formally joined BRI on 15 October 2016, during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s landmark Dhaka visit.
Despite the Covid-19-induced economic slowdown, Chinese investment has been continuously flowing into Bangladesh in areas like infrastructure and special economic zones. A few strategically important transport infrastructure development projects undertaken by China that are being projected as symbols of Bangladesh’s growth include Padma Bridge Rail Link, Payra Deep-Sea Port and Multilane Road Tunnel under river Karnaphuli.
Canceled deals, anti-Chinese protests
However, some of China’s deals with Bangladesh could not be worked out for various reasons. Recently, Joydevpur-Ishwardi double line project and Akhaura-Sylhet dual gauge project have been canceled. Reports say contracts were also terminated for bribery by the state-owned China Communications Construction Company, which was blacklisted by Bangladesh authorities in 2018.
Unlike some South Asian nations such as Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Bangladesh has been careful in its micro-economic management to prevent itself from falling into a Chinese debt trap and has not pushed the BRI too hard. It also did not allow Chinese investment in the development of maritime infrastructure that could have entailed a future People’s Liberation Army Navy presence, as it canceled the Sonadia project and only agreed to a port project in Payra, which can be approached through a 75-km-long canal and is not suitable for the development of a naval base.
Reports also indicate that the Sino-Bangla ties and Beijing’s infrastructure development projects are facing major hurdles with clashes breaking out between local workers and Chinese technicians in a number of places. Moreover, in the wake of popular protests against coal-based power plants in Bangladesh, some projects including Chinese-supported ones were withdrawn primarily due to environmental concerns. Chinese atheism is an issue too in a Muslim-majority nation like Bangladesh.
In another indication of growing discontent against China, several Islamic parties, civil society groups and non-government organizations have recently organized protests across Beijing, calling upon the Chinese government to stop Uyghur genocide in the Xinjiang region and free them from prison camps. These Islamic leaders demanded a boycott of Chinese goods, the expulsion of the Chinese ambassador Li Jiming and even severing of diplomatic relations with Beijing if the oppression persists.
China has also been trying to make subtle forays into Bangladesh’s internal decision-making process. On 27 April 2021, China’s Minister of Defense General Wi Fenghe, during his visit to Dhaka, told the Bangladesh government that Beijing and Dhaka should make joint efforts against powers from outside the region establishing a “military alliance” in South Asia and practicing “hegemonism”.
It was a clear attempt to deter Bangladesh from embracing security partnerships with India and Western powers. His remark is to be viewed against the backdrop of consensus reached among the US, Australia, Japan and India under the Quad framework to enhance cooperation in the strategic Indo-Pacific amid growing Chinese activities flouting international norms and rules in the region.
China is visibly rattled by the four democratic Indo-Pacific nations’ recent efforts to provide an institutional shape to the Quad. The point was reemphasized about two weeks later in an unambiguous but undiplomatic style by the Chinese ambassador who warned that relations with Bangladesh would be substantially damaged if it joined the US-led Quad.
The May 10 warning of ambassador Li was yet another demonstration of China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy of aggressive resistance to attempts that are perceived as direct threats to its core interests. While the Quad grouping has no plans to expand its membership, Ambassador Li’s comment was seen as China’s preemptive bids to dissuade a major Bay of Bengal littoral state Bangladesh from joining the group directed against Beijing.
But Dhaka’s response to Li’s remark was swift and curt with Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen noting that Bangladesh is an independent and sovereign state which decides its foreign policy according to the interests of people. He added that Dhaka maintains a non-aligned and balanced foreign policy and it would chart its future course as per those principles. Dhaka’s strongly-worded statement has restrained China’s authoritarian tendencies for the time being.
Bangladesh-US engagements, CSC
Meanwhile, the US has enhanced its engagement with Bangladesh to advance the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) since 2020, and this development has impacted the Sino-Bangla ties to an extent. The US is a key development partner of Bangladesh and, in fact, Washington is Dhaka’s largest foreign investor in terms of direct foreign investment (FDI). As part of its IPS, the US also wants to have a share in Bangladesh’s expanding defense market and both sides have been holding talks to finalize defense deals.
However, this has caused some uneasiness in Beijing as an overwhelming majority of Bangladesh’s military arms acquisition for several decades has been from China. Bangladesh is ready to diversify its source of military procurement without disturbing the flourishing Beijing-Dhaka defense cooperation.
In another significant development on the maritime front, Bangladesh along with Mauritius and Seychelles are set to become full members of the Colombo Security Conclave (CSC), a regional forum of India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives that seeks to boost cooperation on maritime security, counter-terrorism and disaster relief. A number of issues related to maritime security like coastal surveillance, combating terrorism and various sea-borne crimes including piracy, and areas such as marine pollution response and protection of the maritime environment, and search and rescue have become a priority for Bangladesh since its external trade is conducted mainly through sea routes.
Bangladesh’s maritime focus areas broadly converge with the IPS and India’s doctrine of Security and Growth for all in the Region (SAGAR). Given China’s increasing activities in the regional waters, New Delhi has expanded naval and maritime cooperation with Dhaka in recent years. The PLA Navy has been making concerted attempts to gain a foothold in the strategic Indian Ocean region. China’s technical and financial assistance in building ports in South Asia, including Bangladesh, is part of its long-term interest in developing a naval base for greater access to the Indo-Pacific. China sees Bangladesh as a natural partner and has gradually deepened and broadened defense ties with Bangladesh.
However, China’s growing investment and expanding economic activities in Bangladesh do not necessarily enable it to influence Dhaka’s foreign policy decisions, or seize infrastructure if loans are not repaid, or even potentially secure its support in a regional conflict.
Bangladesh’s strategic autonomy
Bangladesh is currently celebrating the completion of 50 years of its independence and the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is keen to protect the country’s sovereignty and strategic autonomy in the domain of foreign policy. Dhaka is in favor of forging close commercial and economic ties with the leading Indo-Pacific countries, especially the US, but remains non-committal on security aspects.
Bangladesh achieved independence through a bloody war after facing the worst kinds of political subjugation and economic exploitation under Pakistani rule for 24 long years. Those tormenting experiences still haunt Bangladeshis and make them more determined to protect their hard-won independence amid all challenges.
So it is important that democratic countries support Bangladesh’s endeavors to thwart China’s coercion and hegemonic designs in the Indo-Pacific in general and South Asia in particular.
Bangladesh is strategically located between South and South-East Asia, and greater engagement with it both bilaterally and multilaterally would ensure the strengthening of democracy, peace, stability and security in the region. On the part of Bangladesh, which is striving for an independent course in its foreign relations, it has every right to decide on each issue on the basis of merit and national interest.
(The writer is an independent analyst based in Northeast India and taught political science at the Arunachal University of Studies, Namsai. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)