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Dhaka's public admonition by Chinese envoy: Strategic fallout of an expanding profile in South Asia

The Chinese footprint in the South Asian region has been steadily increasing, while that of India is being diluted and all the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) nations are  differently dependent on Beijing for a mix of political, economic, trade and military support, writes Cmde C Uday Bhaskar (retd) for South Asia Monitor

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Ambassador Li Jiming Calls and Foreign Minister of Bangladesh

Beijing’s wolf-warrior diplomacy and the pushback it elicited came into unsavory focus on Tuesday (May 11) when Bangladesh Foreign Minister A. K. Abdul Momen conveyed his discomfort with China in public. Responding to the Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh Li Jiming’s unwarranted remarks on Monday (May 10) at a press conference in Dhaka - where Li warned the Sheikh Hasina government not to engage with the Quad grouping - Momen noted with commendable firmness and sobriety: “We are an independent and sovereign state. We decide our foreign policy. Any country can uphold its position. But we will take decisions considering the interest of people and the country."

The minister clarified that none of the Quad nations had approached Dhaka about joining the grouping and hence the warning was premature.  He also observed that this was an unusual statement and added:  “We did not expect it from China.”

China browbeating South Asian nations

In his defence, Ambassador Li asserted that the Chinese defence minister had conveyed the same message to the Hasina government during his recent visit to Bangladesh and that Beijing viewed the Quad as an anti-China alliance. This was the rationale apparently behind the public warning to pre-empt any attempt by Dhaka to engage with the Quad as an entity. The analogy with the Chinese idiom sha-chi-ching-hou (kill the chicken and scare the monkey) is evident and it may be inferred that this could be a case of admonishing Dhaka publicly, to convey a not so veiled warning to other nations in the region.

It may be recalled that in end April, the Chinese Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe visited both  Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and urged the two countries to resist “powers from outside the region setting up military alliances in South Asia”. The unstated reference was to the Quad. It is understood that Colombo was forthcoming in assuaging China’s anxieties over the Quad and Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa assured his guest that his government would "never forge an alliance with any country".

The Chinese footprint in the South Asian region has been steadily increasing, while that of India is being diluted and all the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) nations are  differently dependent on Beijing for a mix of political, economic, trade and military support. While China’s strategic cooperation with Pakistan goes back to the period when India midwifed the birth of Bangladesh in 1971-72, the engagement with other SAARC countries has been more pronounced over the past 15 years.

Currently, China has also stepped in to fill the Covid vaccine gap created by India’s inability to provide this assistance due to its own domestic pandemic surge. Consequently, Beijing’s profile in the region is even more accentuated.

Whether Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal or Maldives, the strategic predicament for these nations is similar, and this pattern can be discerned in different parts of Africa and South East Asia where the Chinese footprint is on the ascendant due to the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) and other bilateral agreements. The strategic predicament or dilemma is that even as the leadership in these countries enters into often opaque transactions with Chinese entities or the government in Beijing that provide short-term political and monetary benefits to a small coterie, the political future of the nation and some of its tangible assets that are attractive to China are mortgaged in an almost irreversible manner.

This predicament is currently most visible in relation to Sri Lanka – which under its current political leadership may be following the Pakistan path of handing over assets for extended periods (99 years?) and slipping into a crippling debt trap.  Nepal’s political and commercial elite have made similar bargains with China and the Maldives has gone through its own strategic baptism with Beijing.

Chinese discomfiture over Quad

The tentative inferences apropos the Bangladesh-Quad finger-wagging episode are instructive. The first is that for Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Quad is an issue that causes a visible degree of strategic discord and hence the ‘monkey-cat’ path wherein the traditional mandarin is now morphing into a wolf-warrior. This change of orientation has come about despite earlier attempts by Beijing to dismiss the Quad as ‘foam‘ that would soon disappear.

Clearly, the early March virtual summit of the Quad leaders convened by US President Joe Biden has caused considerable discomfiture in Beijing, so much so that even in the run-up to the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in July, the Xi priority is one where fear of China trumps respect. The dragon displaces the panda.   Review what happened to Seoul, Canberra and now Dhaka.

The long-term fallout

The related conclusion that follows is how this strategic predicament, that almost all of China’s Asian interlocutors have differently experienced (including India and Japan), will pan out over the next decade.  Standing up to China’s intimidation is costly but how much public humiliation (eating crow) will a nation accept to appease an insecure and bellicose Beijing?  

Paradoxically, the answers may be embedded in the manner in which the Xi Jinping team can shape the narrative and perception of the Middle Kingdom to its own populace – a very sensitive issue in the weeks preceding the next June 4 Tiananmen anniversary. The Dhaka admonition by an emissary of Beijing may have more strategic context than it appears.

(The writer is Director, Society for Policy Studies - SPS. Views are personal)

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