Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina gives flowers to Chinese President Xi Jinping before their meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Dhaka on October 14, 2016. China is an important geopolitical player in Bangladesh. Photo: Anadolu Agency / Stringer

Bangladesh does not sit astride the global sea lanes of communications like Sri Lanka. It hasn’t the geo-strategic importance that Maldives, Seychelles or Madagascar has. Along its land borders, it’s almost entirely surrounded by India, except for a short contiguity with Myanmar. Yet because of its economic revival, it has started drawing global attention.

Also, the reputation that the current regime has been able to earn in terms of fighting against radicalism and terrorism has resulted in the free world’s faith in Bangladesh reviving.

There are a few more strategic reasons. Bangladesh provides easy connectivity to Southeast Asia. Especially for Nepal and Bhutan, Bangladeshi ports have great potential.

However, a question that’s often at issue is, which way is Bangladesh going to lean? Will it open the avenue for Chinese dominance or will it align with democratic countries of the Asia-Pacific region?

A little more than a decade back, Bangladesh was being labeled as another potential failed state. But now, C Raja Mohan, director of the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, in an article in Foreign Policy dated March 25, 2021, contends, “The country is on a firm trajectory to graduate out of the category of least developed countries by 2026 and likely to jump into the 25 largest economies worldwide by 2030.”

As Bangladesh takes strides forward and gets sucked into the geopolitics of the region, its relations with the three Asian majors, Japan, India and China, will be followed closely. A look into Bangladesh-Japan relations could be the starting point.

Relations with Japan

Bangladesh-Japan relations have been cozy all along. The headline of an April 21 report in The Financial Express (Bangladesh) says: “Number of Japanese firms in Bangladesh increases four times in 10 years.” It goes on to report: “A total of 321 Japanese firms are currently running their businesses in the country. The number was 83 in 2010.”

Japan emerged as Bangladesh’s largest bilateral donor in the 2020-21 fiscal with a commitment of more than US$714 million during the period July to November. The Japanese aid was more than double that of the Asian Development Bank and World Bank combined. Japanese interest rates are also the lowest. Japanese support has picked up since FY2018 when the Japan International Cooperation Agency disbursed $1.54 billion.

The two countries have accommodated each other’s geopolitical interests in the past. An article by Clint Richards in The Diplomat on September 9, 2014, reported that to ensure Japan was able to get a seat in the Security Council without a contest, the Bangladeshi prime minister was ready to forgo its claim. 

Japan had of course announced an economic package worth roughly 600 billion yen ($5.7 billion) in aid, loans and investments. Not too long before this deal, Japan had also announced $4 billion for a port and a thermal power plant.

Relations with India

The geographical locations of Bangladesh and India entwine their interests inseparably. India has a strategic vulnerability to its northeast. Its seven eastern states are connected to the mainland by the narrow Siliguri Corridor, barely 17 kilometers wide at its narrowest point.

With India-Bangladesh relations warming, road, rail and connectivity through rivers to these seven states has enhanced. For these states, Bangladeshi ports are closer and cheaper to access as compared with Kolkata Port in India, providing economic benefits to both countries.

Bangladesh is also important in India’s strategic calculus. Should an adverse situation be forced upon it by the Chinese in the Siliguri Corridor, Bangladesh could provide the linkage to India’s northeastern states for the operational movement of Indian forces.

As far as Bangladesh is concerned, most of its major rivers flow through India. Being a lower riparian state, it’s dependent on the Indian position on river-water sharing. Most of Bangladesh’s population centers are built astride these rivers. Further, cross-border trade has hugely impacted the development of its border districts.

India is also the predominant power in the Bay of Bengal, through which Bangladeshi shipping must pass to reach the Indian Ocean.

India-Bangladesh relations have also witnessed the resolution of border disputes. Both land and maritime borders are now quite settled. India has honored the UN Tribunal award of July 7, 2017, in favor of Bangladesh regarding the Bay of Bengal.

Relations with China

As far as the Chinese are concerned, they have made deep inroads into Bangladesh. The relationship between the two countries was far from friendly in 1971 when Bangladeshis fought their way to independence from Pakistan along with the Indian Army. It was only in 1976 that China recognized Bangladesh.

However, the relationship has grown from strength to strength in the past two decades. In 2002, the two countries signed a Defense Cooperation Agreement. In 2017, during a visit by President Xi Jinping, Bangladesh and China agreed to upgrade their bilateral relationship to the level of a “Strategic Partnership of Cooperation.”

Most of Bangladesh’s imports of arms and weapons are from China; in fact, 70% of its imports between 2010 and 2019. Bangladesh, along with Pakistan and North Korea, are the major importers of Chinese military equipment.

The Chinese have failed to make a major dent in the global arms market, more because of their aggressive foreign policy than being cost and quality competitive. Beijing is also helping Bangladesh construct a base at Cox’s Bazar for submarines that it purchased from China in 2016. However, a Chinese-aided deep-sea port at Sonadia has been dropped. India was definitely uncomfortable with that project.

Beyond weapon systems, China has invested heavily in Bangladesh’s power generation and distribution network. According to the Dhaka Tribune of October 29, 2020, “China had replaced the United States as Bangladesh’s top investor in 2018. China held the position in FY2019 by investing $1.2 billion in Bangladesh.”

Bangladesh has agreed to be a part of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. As a result, after Xi’s visit in 2016, Chinese investment in Bangladesh was promised at $40 billion. It included $24.45 billion in bilateral assistance for infrastructure projects and $13.6 billion in joint ventures. In addition, $20 billion in loan agreements was committed to, according to the Dhaka Tribune report cited above.

Bangladesh is ambitious like every other developing country that has a vision for itself. It has a plan for a 100 special economic zones. It plans to increase its power output to 20,000 megawatts by 2022 from 17,000 in 2019. Chinese funding will drive a lot of these endeavors. There is also the bridge on the Padma River and a rail link across it, with the Chinese again participating.

China also bought three gas outfields from Chevron in 2017 that account for half the gas produced by Bangladesh. China is investing in Bangladesh’s Payra shipping port that promises strategic advantages.  

Power, largesse – and arrogance

The Chinese deluge of funding would alert even the dead. Is Bangladesh going to travel the same trajectory as Sri Lanka or Pakistan? Hambantota, Sri Lanka, is now leased for 99 years to China. Gwadar, Pakistan, is leased to the Chinese domain for the next 45 years.

China is also being increasingly viewed as aggressive. China’s “all-weather friend” Pakistan is canceling a major coal-fired power plant, Myanmar, otherwise heavily dependent on China, has decided to reduce the cost of a major port from close to $7.3 billion to $1.3 billion, Sierra Leone has canceled an airport, while Malaysia crossed out $22 billion worth of Chinese-supported projects. The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative is itself rocking.

Looking ahead, surely the expectations in most capitals globally is of Bangladesh pursuing its national interests. However, a long-term vision of growth is accompanied by sovereignty as an equally important equation for every nation to arrive at.  

The Bangladeshi leadership is surely conscious of the country getting into a Chinese debt trap. In fact, the silver lining was offered by Zahid Hussain, as the World Bank’s lead economist on Bangladesh.

In a statement on July 1, 2019, to Deutsche Welle he said, “The loans granted to Bangladesh by China so far account for just 6% of the total debt.”  However, with funds flowing in through the BRI channels, and a huge rush of developmental projects, the situation could turn ugly.

Debts, investments, equities and grants often bring in their wake the political sway of the benefactor on the beneficiary’s sovereignty. A widely reported warning by the Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh, Li Jiming, on May 10 while addressing a virtual meeting of the Defense Correspondents Association of Bangladesh, got people fuming.

“Obviously it will not be a good idea for Bangladesh to participate in this small club of four [Quad] because it will substantially damage our bilateral relationship,” Li declared.

Chinese arrogance and its desire to convert Bangladesh into a satellite state resonated from his warning. Bangladeshis are fiercely independent, proud of their culture, language and diversity. They won their independence after traversing a bloody trail. Notwithstanding the loud response to Ambassador Li’s remarks, its resonance also echoed in many South and Southeast Asian capitals.

India can barely afford a pro-China stance by Bangladesh. Indians would be loath to have Chinese ships in the Bay of Bengal, let alone a Chinese base there. However, it must either provide – or nudge other free nations and global institutions into providing – Bangladesh the funds that it requires to sustain its growth.

As far as Bangladesh is concerned, the rush for growth is understandable, but its own values, culture and sovereignty are surely equally important. Perhaps Bangladesh should, most of all, evaluate the option that provoked the Chinese ambassador, and consider joining the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue when it tries to widen its partnership with countries in the region.

S K Chatterji

Brigadier S K Chatterji (Retired) served in the Regiment of Artillery of the Indian Army and is a prolific writer.