Rohingya refugees reach the Bangladeshi side of the Naf river in Palang Khali after crossing the from Myanmar. Photo: Reuters / Jorge Silva
Rohingya refugees reach the Bangladeshi side of the Naf river in Palang Khali after crossing the from Myanmar. Photo: Reuters / Jorge Silva

With changing scenarios across the global spectrum, Bangladesh is increasingly becoming a field of cold confrontation between the East and the West. The competition to spread influence in the region has received new impetus since the beginning of the Rohingya crisis. The Western world is trying to re-establish its influence over Dhaka, which is seen by China as a “strategic partner.”

The West has lost much of its influence over Bangladesh because of the massive financial bankrolling from Beijing. China is investing in infrastructure development on a grand scale, partly in line with its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The investments range from construction of bridges, tunnels, metro rail and power plants to  development of the telecommunication sector, oil pipelines and so forth.

During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Dhaka in October 2016, Bangladesh and China inked deals and investment plans worth US$24.45 billion. Chinese companies along with Indian counterparts are working to develop the Payra seaport.

Rift with West

The big break in relations between the West and Dhaka came in 2012 when the World Bank canceled a loan package to construct a bridge over the Padma River, which many Bangladeshis considered a dream project that could significantly boast economic growth. The World Bank canceled the loan on allegations of corruption among senior officials in the Bangladeshi administration, which Dhaka angrily denied.

This gave China the opportunity to enhance ties with the Bangladeshi government, ruled by Awami League, which is widely seen as a pro-India political party.

Previously, Western authorities criticized the Bangladeshi government’s reluctance to adhere to their recommendations on human-rights issues. The US suspended GSP (Generalized System of Preferences) facilities to Bangladesh in 2012, which is still in effect, and in 2017, the European Union slapped cargo curbs on Dhaka.

Western countries also criticized the Bangladeshi administration over controversial elections in 2014, which were marred with an unprecedented level of violence.

Another major reason for Western worries is the Bangladesh Armed Forces’ strong ties with China and Russia. Bangladesh is the second biggest buyer of Chinese arms, most of which are purchased under soft loans. Bangladesh reached a similar agreement with Russia in 2013. Dhaka is negotiating with Russia on purchase of multi-role fighter jets. Officials in New Delhi were certainly not happy when Bangladesh acquired its first submarines from China.

Worries in New Delhi

Dhaka’s close affinity with Beijing and Moscow made New Delhi uncomfortable, after it became a stronger US ally in the region through the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA). The Doklam incident underlined India’s weariness over China’s ambitions. US hegemony was threatened when China launched the BRI, and India didn’t feel comfortable when Bangladesh’s foreign secretary reaffirmed Dhaka’s participation in it. A leading Indian news agency even went as far as to label the decision a “betrayal” on its social-media outlet.

On top of all this, the Rohingya crisis began in Myanmar, and refugees fled to neighboring Bangladesh. Myanmar and Bangladesh are both crucial elements for successful implementation of the massive BRI project. China is constructing a pipeline through Myanmar to Yunnan, which will cut China’s dependency on the Malacca Straits for energy supplies, currently under thumb of US and its allies.

At the same time, both Russia and China have successfully made rapprochements with key Muslim powers, particularly in the Middle East, that were once at odds with them. The US seized on the Rohingya crisis as an opportunity to regain lost ground in the region, leading to a tussle in the United Nations.

China had further reasons for grievance when Bangladesh decided to go with a Japanese venture in building a deep sea port instead of looking into a Chinese proposal.

Inept foreign policy

Although China had made serious inroads in Bangladesh on building a solid relationship, Bangladesh never got off to a good start in structuring a robust and dynamic foreign policy. The ineptness of Bangladesh in foreign affairs has been revealed spectacularly since the Rohingya crisis began. China pushed through with its objective to settle the issue through bilateral negotiations, while the US looked into its usual sanctions treatment.

Through the course of events, the US has found two notable allies in India and Turkey to help it reverse Chinese and Russian gains in Asia.

In social media, China and Russia have been criticized by the Bangladeshis for their stance on the Rohingya question in the UN. Though most ordinary Bangladeshis do not view India as a friendly neighbor, New Delhi wields significant leverage over the ruling political party in Dhaka. In many parts of Bangladesh, India is bashed heavily for “taking too much while giving too little.”

Islamists on rise

The Rohingya crisis gave the Islamists in Bangladesh room to stand up. These parties look to Turkey as a champion for the Muslim cause, which has risen rapidly on the world stage by means of rhetorical power. Remarkably, Turkey is a key NATO power, which advances US interests in contentious regions by default. Before the Rohingya refugee crisis, Turkey and Bangladesh had frosty relations over a war-crimes trial in Dhaka in 2016. But the ties were quickly amended recently, with several high-level visits from Turkey to Bangladesh over the Rohingya question. Once again, Bangladeshis are looking toward Turkey in positive terms.

The Dhaka administration is entering 2018 eyeing a national election. Apart from the international maneuvers between Beijing and Washington, domestic affairs are showing signs of possible unease and confrontation. The administration has had some serious contradictions with the judiciary, where the chief justice had to leave the country and resign from abroad. That whole event was shrouded in controversy, and since a new chief justice has not been appointed yet, room for further complications between the executive and the judiciary of the state remains.

Apart from the controversy over the 2014 elections, the current government has also been heavily criticized for authoritarianism, intimidation, excessive use of force, nepotism, anomalies in the banking sector and the high prices of essentials. India is also concerned with Dhaka’s cozying up with Beijing, and has increased communication with the main opposition party in Bangladesh.

The Islamist parties are rising up amid tensions over the Rohingya crisis. Hindutva frenzy in the Indian state of Assam is threatening to expel the Muslim population in to Bangladesh. That would lead to the biggest crisis in Bangladesh since its independence.

In the conflict between East and West, can Dhaka survive between the hammer and anvil of the rival behemoths?

Khalid Ibn Muneer is an independent foreign affairs analyst with an engineering background based in Dhaka. He is a keen follower of South Asian and Middle Eastern affairs, and is an editor of the foreign affairs blog Qutnyti. He has also authored articles that were featured in Geopolitica.Ru, Daily New Age, Regional Rapport, Millat Times and South Asian Monitor.

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