BRI in South Asia.

Though South Asia occupies only 3.4% of the world’s land surface area, it is home to 24% of the world population. Each country in South Asia is in an economic upswing. Estimates are that South Asia has experienced on average 7.3% economic growth over the past decade, which makes this region one of the fastest-growing in the world. The Chinese government considers South Asia the main axis for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), since this region plays key roles in achieving China’s core geopolitical strategic goal called the “String of Pearls.”

In South Asia, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal and Pakistan have extended their support to the BRI, with the holdouts being India and Bhutan. The relationship between the two Asian giants, China and India, has been marked by competition rather than cooperation in the region, and Bangladesh provides a classic example of this trend. The newly inducted US Indo-Pacific Strategy adds a new dimension to this competition. On the one hand, India is considered the prime US ally in this region, while on the other hand, US- Pakistan relations are declining, while Sino-America ties are getting even bumpier amid the trade war.

Now, where does Bangladesh stand in the BRI? In a 2016 commentary in China Daily, Donald J Lewis, director of the Center for International Economic Law, Trade and Development, said, “The land dimensions of the BRI consist of several interconnected corridors spanning the entire Eurasian continent. Bangladesh is centrally situated along the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor. Bangladesh also occupies a strategic position along the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road with its bustling port of Chittagong as a major maritime hub through the Indian Ocean.”

In Bangladeshi geopolitics India has always been at the center while the US has had leverage and other regional powers such as China used to be on the periphery. The core US ally in the Indo-Pacific region, India, seems not always to be on the same page with the American agenda when it comes to the question of Bangladesh; rather, India tends to play its own game.

Historically, Bangladesh has a more cultural and societal link with India, as India-Pakistan-Bangladesh was altogether known as the Indian subcontinent. However, India’s hegemonic posture and coercive tactics created deep resentment among the people of smaller countries in South Asia, including in Bangladesh. China has had success in earning the confidence of India’s smaller neighbors, largely aided by India’s domineering attitude toward the concerns next door. We may understand how profound these geopolitical changes have been if we look back on the historical background.

Bangladesh was liberated from Pakistan with direct military assistance from India, while China backed Pakistan and its incumbent party, the Awami League, maintained keen ties to New Delhi. The party lost power for a long time in August 1975 when its leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh, was assassinated in a military coup.

After August 1975 a new regime took over in Bangladesh and began negotiations with China to break India’s overwhelming influence. Ever since, the India-China tug-of-war for influence in Bangladesh has increased. Moving forward, the newly inducted Chinese grand strategy, the BRI, added new dimensions to its clout.

Since the inception of the BRI, China with its vast financial clout has launched special initiatives to boost its ties with Bangladesh by pouring billions of dollars into infrastructure projects

Since the inception of the BRI, China with its vast financial clout has launched special initiatives to boost its ties with Bangladesh by pouring billions of dollars into infrastructure projects. China considers Bangladesh one of the gateways for the Maritime Silk Road (one of the segments of the BRI) that allows China access to the Indian Ocean and beyond. Therefore, China showed a keen interest in building a deep-sea port at Sonadia in Bangladesh. The deal was expected to be signed during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s 2014 trip to China, but it never happened. The project remains murky, lacking an update, with rumors that the initiative was blocked by India.

However, the emergence of protectionist trade policy under US President Donald Trump followed by a bumpy trade war against China, coupled with hamstring sanctions against Iran, have pushed India into steep terrain. In such a difficult situation, confrontation with Beijing is not a prudent choice for New Delhi. Hence it is exploring a way to cooperate where there is room to do so. Thus Bangladesh shows up on the horizon, where India and China both project significant influence.

The current Chinese infrastructure projects worth US$10 billion in Bangladesh include the 6.5-kilometer-long Padma Bridge and an industrial park approximately 3 square kilometers in area. As the cost of labor is rising and the population is aging in China, its labor-intensive sunset industries such as garment manufacturing will be looking for places to relocate. China will continue to move away from labor-intensive, low-tech industries toward those with high margins and high tech. Moreover, this will speed up further because of the US-imposed tariffs on China-made goods. Since Bangladesh offers a huge garment-industry labor force at a minimum cost, the importance of Bangladesh for offshore Chinese investment is growing.

Since the BRI’s inception India has refused to participate, outlining its objections to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which New Delhi sees as a violation of India’s sovereignty. However, India is now proposing connectivity of its northeastern part to China via the Chittagong port of Bangladesh, which will also boost further regional integration by complementing the BCIM and the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) corridors.

India now aims to allow “limited Chinese investment” for boosting connectivity and trade in the northeast by using the BBIN sub-regional hub. This paradigm shift in Indian policies toward the BRI is being considered as the potential for a fresh beginning of India-China regional cooperation centering on Bangladesh, where a critical Bangladeshi port will work as the connecting hub. Also, the tactful foreign policy of the incumbent government in Dhaka to accommodate both Asian behemoths henceforth will emcourage China and India to get closer.

Amid Western criticisms of the recent elections in Bangladesh, China and India stood behind the current Dhaka administration. While the major opposition parties in Bangladesh increasingly inclined toward the West, the incumbent government in Dhaka, which defends close rapport with both Beijing and New Delhi, can offer a gateway for the beginning of regional cooperation between India and China.

However, the tendency of smaller developing countries like Bangladesh to tilt toward China has been marked as a symbol of exporting the authoritative Chinese model, where democracy dies down in the pretext of mere development. The US-inducted Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) Strategy is a blueprint for regional engagement that aims to safeguard democracy and establish rule-based order in the Asia-Pacific region, which seems at risk in Bangladesh.

The United States is the largest investor in Bangladesh, and it is also the top destination of Bangladesh’s core industry, the garment sector. Bangladesh has been considered a moderate Muslim country that used to be allied with the US to fight against terrorism and extremism, but while democracy shatters, there is a propensity for growing extremisms.

The United States should customize its policies for the Indo-Pacific region while countering growing Chinese influence so that countries like India can find room to collaborate in strategically important countries such as Bangladesh. To double down on this approach, the US and its democratic allies should focus on transparency and good governance in Bangladesh, rather than touting electoral victories as a rollback of Beijing’s influence.

Anu Anwar is a fellow at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and a non-resident associate at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University. He is pursuing a PhD at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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