China’s strategic relationship with Bangladesh has begun to grow expansively with the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Dhaka in October, marking the first visit by a Chinese head of state to Bangladesh in 30 years. The relationship has been elevated to “strategic partnership” from “the closer comprehensive partnership of cooperation.”
Bangladesh has enthusiastically offered its full support to President Jinping’s “One Belt One Road” initiative which is often viewed as a “strategic and security project.” It is, perhaps, a major initiative for Bangladesh for its economic development and to connect itself with global markets.
The recognition to OBOR and establishment of institutional instruments will appear as a major strategic fulcrum in regional politics. But the most important paradigm shift in the Bangladesh-China relationship came from the Chinese president’s statement: “China is ready to synergise its 13th five-year plan with Bangladesh’s seventh five-year plan.”
This visit came at a point when Bangladesh started to accumulate the benefit of its intersecting potential of being an emerging economy and an iconic geo-strategic pivot. It has transformed itself as a source of security to its neighbouring countries, contrary to the popular perception that Bangladesh needs all-encompassing security support from its regional neighbours. This is indeed a paradigm shift in the regional security architecture.
Bangladesh now acts as a conduit for India’s security and stability in the Indian Northeast, and Bangladesh has become the fifth largest remittance source for India. Bangladesh has expressed all its good intention to mitigate the stateless Arakanese refugee (known as Rohingya) crisis and provided support to Myanmar to neutralise the Burmese insurgent groups.
We are a leading troop contributor country in the UN peacekeeping missions, and we have resolved our maritime border disputes with India and Myanmar that has paved the way to exercise sovereign decisions on the Bay of Bengal. This is another paradigm shift.
Bangladesh’s track record to deal with terrorism, since the July 2016 attack in Dhaka, has proved to be very satisfactory, and Bangladeshis in general have collectively rejected such atrocities. Nevertheless, terrorist attacks can happen anywhere, anytime -- this means that Bangladesh would need to keep its security structure prepared and modernised.
In moving China-Bangladesh trade relations forward, Beijing should relax market access terms, such as rules of origin for Bangladeshi products
In terms of economy, Bangladesh may become a growth out-performer for the next decade, riding on demographic dividend and expected measures aimed at improving the business environment. The positive, educated, ICT-enabled demography will facilitate an endogenous boost to economic activity. If we can ensure the right economic and policy reforms, Bangladesh will be able to absorb massive FDI at low-cost labour and production capabilities.
The demographic dividend could also be a challenge. We need to ensure better education, social development, and most importantly, employment. Structured and coordinated measures are yet to be undertaken so that this huge pool of population is not vulnerable to online radicalisation, extremist narratives, and exploitations through multiple channels of communication. It is encouraging that China has expressed its support to help in boosting the capacities of the youth in Bangladesh.
Along with economic development, the issues concerning environment, particularly river management, need to be addressed. Investments in industrial or energy projects must not come at the cost of environmental risks. I am sure that we will work together to make our shared rivers more manageable in the near future.
President Xi understood the importance of the humane side of water and said: “In fact, both the Chinese and Bangladeshi people drink water from the same river, known as Yarlung Zangbo River in China and Jamuna River in Bangladesh.” This statement also indicates China’s interest in establishing a multilateral transparent water regime in the region.
In moving China-Bangladesh trade relations forward, Beijing should relax market access terms, such as rules of origin for Bangladeshi products. Bangladesh plans to strengthen regulations on procuring suppliers and buyers credit to the country’s potential debt burden and liability. In fact, this measure is meant for all the trading countries.
The cooperation from the local politicians and overall increase in bureaucratic efficiency will be essential for Chinese investment. The multi-billion dollar Korean Export Processing Zone in Chittagong is a classic case of non-cooperation from the local administration and some government agencies and public representatives. This should be avoided at any cost.
With all the undergoing paradigm shifts, geo-political and geo-strategic, Bangladesh is also exposed to a formidable challenge to maintain a balance in its foreign and security policies. The US is now encountering a complex challenge from China along with the challenge of balancing India’s growth.
India is witnessing changes in China-India ties due to its own enhanced trade relations with China, and its dealing with China’s obscure political balance between economic diplomacy and security doctrine. India’s relationship with its neighbours is facing dents too.
I have heard many times that the relationship between Bangladesh and China has become a worrying factor in Delhi. But Bangladesh neither holds any statist “security obsession” nor its populace holds jingoism to see the country as a major defense market at the expense of development.
Perhaps India’s economic growth and security stability are of importance for Bangladesh, China, and the US long-term foreign policy objectives. I doubt Bangladesh’s expansive tie with China may pose a threat to India or to the US that intends to play a constructive role in the Bay of Bengal.
But for sure, to harness the potential of blue economy and to protect the Bay of Bengal trade routes from multiple security threats, Bangladesh will need to enhance its naval capacity.
That means the overall modernisation of our armed forces and the law enforcement agencies too should remain as a key component in Bangladesh-China-US relations.
The bilateral ties between Bangladesh and China could witness unpredictable security challenges in the future. We may see a pool of rogue outfits, not only IS or AQIS or ETIM, carrying out physical and cyber attacks to crenellate Bangladesh and China bilateral relations.
To counter this threat, both the countries would need to hold regular strategic dialogues with sincerity -- as President Xi Jinping mentioned during his visit to Dhaka: “Only friendships built on sincerity can last long.”
Shahab Enam Khan is Associate Professor in International Relations, Jahangirnagar University and Research Director at Bangladesh Enterprise Institute. This is an excerpt of Shahab Enam Khan’s keynote paper at the Chinese Institutes of Contemporary International Relations-Bangladesh Enterprise Institute joint Seminar on “China-Bangladesh Security Relations” in Beijing, China, held on October 19, 2016.