Waving flags of Bangladesh and India. Photo: iStock
Waving flags of Bangladesh and India. Photo: iStock

After last year’s Doklam standoff ended, India-China relations seem to have received a fresh change. Two high-level visits from India, by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, followed by the recent trip by Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe to India are raising expectations of a positive change in direction.

Since the Modi-led government came to power, India’s chief concern in its South Asian periphery has been the emergence of Chinese influence. China’s success in earning the confidence of India’s smaller neighbors was largely aided by India’s domineering attitude toward the concerns next door.

India’s hegemonic posture and coercive tactics created deep resentment among the people of those smaller countries. Meanwhile the polarizing environment inside India only aggravated the anxieties among its neighbors, with the result that they had no choice but to embrace China.

China with its huge financial clout started to pour billions of dollars into infrastructure projects in those countries as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). To counter the situation, India resorted to offering aid packages to its neighbors for infrastructure development. However, India’s aid campaign was dwarfed by the Chinese aid as its economy was saddled with a large current-account deficit.

India’s recent bonhomie with the West further complicated its ambitions. The emergence of protectionist trade policy under US President Donald Trump followed by a declaration of a trade war against China, coupled with crippling sanctions against Iran, have pushed India into difficult terrain, not least because of the
Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which is casting shadows over its defense purchases from Russia.

With such a difficult situation, confrontation with Beijing cannot be a desirable choice for New Delhi, so it is looking for avenues for cooperation where there is room for it. Thus Bangladesh shows up on the horizon, where India and China both project significant influence.

India’s inroads into the Bangladeshi realm run deep through politics and culture. Indian points of view on Bangladesh are a subject of serious debate in every walk of Bangladeshi life. The Indian entertainment industry has a large audience in Bangladesh, while the neighboring provinces of India speak similar languages to that country’s tongue. With the Partition of 1947, although the countries got separate maps, many respective citizens have relatives living on either side of the border.

The current Dhaka administration, which began its term in 2008, is generally viewed as pro-Indian, which has gone to significant lengths to eliminate major Indian concerns over security and connectivity to its northeastern states. However, New Delhi’s reserved attitude in addressing Dhaka’s concerns allowed China to present itself as a great strategic partner. Bangladesh’s desire to join the BRI opened the door for China to take part in the developing important infrastructure projects in the country.

Nevertheless, the India factor in Bangladeshi politics is much larger and often becomes a topic of hot debate in Bangladeshi media. India considers Bangladesh a very important component in the dynamics of Indian security. Most notably, Bangladesh is a vital transport corridor to India’s northeastern states that is seen as an alternative route to the vulnerable Siliguri Corridor.

Although China’s cultural affinity with Bangladesh is not on the same scale as India’s, the encouraging economy of Bangladesh offers China room for investment and mutual growth.

Since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1975, Beijing’s ties with Dhaka have grown by leaps and bounds. They share a robust relationship in the field of defense, with China as the biggest source of military hardware for Bangladesh.

China is currently implementing infrastructure projects worth US$10 billion in Bangladesh, which include an industrial park approximately 3 square kilometers in area. China is looking to shift some of its industries to Bangladesh because of rising costs at home, and this will speed up further because of the US-imposed tariffs on China-made goods.

India has so far refused to enter the BRI, outlining its reservations on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which according to New Delhi violates India’s sovereignty, since a part of the CPEC runs through the disputed territory of Kashmir. But the complicated international developments under Trump have encouraged India to explore room for regional cooperation with China.

India is now offering connectivity to its northeastern territories to China via the Chittagong port of Bangladesh, which will also help boost regional trade by complementing the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor with the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) corridor.

India’s aim to allow “limited Chinese investment” for boosting connectivity and trade in the northeast using the BBIN sub-regional hub, as reported this month by the Press Trust of India, not only will mark the beginning of a strategic shift from New Delhi’s previous policies, but also shows the potential of a beginning of India-China regional cooperation centering on Bangladesh, where a key Bangladeshi port will work as the connecting hub. And the presence of an administration in Dhaka that is willing to accommodate both Asian behemoths in its policies will help China and India to get closer.

China’s multidimensional involvement in Bangladesh is now a reality, and any effort to counter it by India will be futile. Meaningful cooperation with China in Bangladesh will be instrumental for India’s security in the northeastern states and stability in the region. Amid Western criticisms of the 2014 elections in Bangladesh, China and India stood behind the current Dhaka administration.

The trade spat between the two largest economies of the world is opening up a bigger opportunity for trade between India and China, as the former can claim a share of the past US-China trade market and work on to reduce its $63 billion trade deficit with China.

With the major opposition parties in Bangladesh becoming more and more inclined toward the West, the current administration in Dhaka, which maintains close rapport with both Beijing and New Delhi, can offer a gateway for the beginning of regional cooperation between India and China. In order to bolster their relations, China and India will then have an opportunity to work together in Bangladesh to explore common interests and then clamp down on the elements of hybrid warfare in the region that pose a threat to regional stability and facilitate regional growth through connectivity.

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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