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OP-ED: Tough love - Bangladeshi foreign policy on China, India, and the US

  • Published at 10:30 pm December 22nd, 2020
Hasina Modi
File photo: Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina holds bilateral talks with her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in the sidelines of UNGA at Kennedy Room of Lotte New York Palace in New York, US on September 27, 2019 Focus Bangla

What are the roles each country is playing?

With rising tension between China and India, new Chinese investment deals in Bangladesh have stirred up a media storm all around India, roping the United States into the picture to grab Bangladesh’s attention. However, the harshest of criticisms regarding Chinese investments in Bangladesh overlooks Dhaka’s ability to look out for its national interests. 

It will be misplaced if one claims that Chinese investment promises are synonymous to moving away from Indian influence. They will be similarly mistaken to assume that Bangladesh will side with the American hegemony when the time comes. What appears to be a vague foreign policy outlook to external actors is rather a well-disguised regional maneuver based on a transactional relationship with China, and the United States, for better balance of power. 

To begin understanding this complexity, we need to understand China’s rise to power and its conduct in Asia. 

Transactional China

China strictly upholds and maintains Confucian values. Throughout the 1980s, the country has sought after peace through isolation. China’s Cold War experience of maneuvering between the US and USSR has further contributed to its aversion of alliances. 

Instead, at the height of a bipolar, hegemonic world, China committed to an independent and self-reliant foreign policy, rejecting alliances as a Cold War antiquity inconsistent with the Chinese agenda. In the 90s, when China ventured out with a unique brand of partnership diplomacy, based on the same Confucian values, the limitations of nonalignment principles became apparent. 

Given China’s size and challenging location, their neighbours’ suspicion is certain. However, China’s gradually bolstering behaviour, especially in the last decade, has made it more apparent that looking out for their interest is the only Chinese agenda. 

Enforcing a self-declared maritime border encompassing approximately 80% of the South China Sea, applying incremental pressure and even coercing tactics to assert sovereignty over disputed territories are only some of the defining characteristics of China’s behaviour in the Asia Pacific. 

Beyond the Asia-Pacific, however, China’s conduct has always been transactional. The country has primarily been interested in nurturing business relationships, a chief example being Pakistan. China functions as Pakistan’s largest arms supplier, amounting to 47% of Pakistan’s annual arms trade, and its third-largest trading partner.

Moreover, China’s investment in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) aims to drastically reduce the time and geopolitical insecurity when transferring oil from the Persian Gulf to Shanghai. On top of that, China is committed to cooperate in improving Pakistan’s civil nuclear power sector, while taking on the construction of a multimillion-dollar dam in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, serving a big blow to neighbour and long-time adversary India. 

On the similar wavelength, securing Bangladesh’s cooperation is synonymous to accessing an important Indian ally in South Asia. Promising $6.4bn investment in nine infrastructure projects around Bangladesh is just part of the transactional nature. 

What makes Bangladesh important to China is a chance to access the Bay of Bengal, and with it, a larger access to the Indian Ocean. China’s significant expansion in the Indian Ocean region over the past three decades has been alarming both American and Indian strategists. The country’s growing naval presence along with its illusive economic engagements might provide meaningful military advantages in bolstering its soft power influences and engaging in coercive diplomacy towards smaller countries far from its shores. 

Currently, only Myanmar provides China access to the Indian Ocean, with China eyeing for aggressive expansion of their maritime ambitions. Over time, China has claimed that they are only interested in economic gains from the Indian Ocean region, but the Chinese Maritime Silk Route (MSR) initiative has scratched many heads regarding the security cooperation between China and other states, including Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, and the strategic significance of Chinese control over the newly constructed deep-sea ports in the region. 

A warm and inviting China eyeing for Bay of Bengal access is reminiscent of Chinese conduct in the Philippines. Chinese warships are allowed in Philippine waters, citing friendlier relationships under President Duterte. 

However, just this February, Chinese warships violated international maritime laws and Philippine sovereignty by locking targets on a Philippine Navy vessel in the West Philippine Sea, announcing that China has full access to the South China Sea, its waters, and adjacent islands. 

In light of this, Bangladesh discarding the Sonadia deep-sea port project at India’s request was a smart move, proving India is truly the bigger influence and a greater friend for Bangladesh. However, going forward with nine infrastructure projects worth $6.4bn signals to India that they need to tighten their act as well.

Balancing India and the US

Bangladesh is practically surrounded by India, with a 4,096km shared border, and acts as the centre for tackling extremists before they can spread influence in India. While there is no denying India is Bangladesh’s greatest friend just because of their 1971 cooperation alone, Bangladeshis have also been touted as “termites” and incapable of protecting against Chinese debt-trap, and as traitors by the current Indian political elites. Ironically, all of this is occurring while they are simultaneously recognizing the special relationship both countries have.

Bangladesh has extensive experience managing international aid and loans from various bilateral and multilateral funders. Because of this, Bangladesh was able to blacklist China Harbour and Engineering Company (CHEC) and roll back a $1.6bn highway project as they cautiously allowed investments in. 

Out of the 27 signed MoUs between the two countries in 2016 as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, only five were delivered by 2019. The country’s illustrated history of financial prudence and careful borrowing is largely why Chinese economic cooperation is neither synonymous to debt-traps nor allyship. 

Bangladesh has sided with India even though the neighbours have stepped over Bangladesh multiple times, citing “their own interests.” 

Failure to reach an agreement on Teesta water sharing treaty, sucking up Feni Rivers’ water to serve Tripuran interests, drafting the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019 without considering the impacts and mitigating measures of a likely Muslim exodus to Bangladesh, or even sudden restrictions on jute export -- these are just some of the highly debated issues that have not gone Bangladesh’s way. 

Under such context, Bangladesh seeking more “transactional” cooperation with China, including the $1bn Teesta Water Management project, seems like an unintended consequence of an unstructured Indian foreign policy. 

Centrists in the Indian media have already illustrated the geostrategic importance of Dhaka to New Delhi, as a certain candidate to balance Chinese influence in the region and in the Bay of Bengal. As it stands, Bangladesh’s engagement with China is not to signal a souring relationship, rather to send a subtle tide that Dhaka cannot be taken for granted. 

Globally, Bangladesh is countering Chinese influence with American defense diplomacy. This is not only a smart foreign policy move from Bangladesh, but one that is timely. SIPRI reports that the United States has been exporting $110m worth of arms to Bangladesh since 2010, which is just a meager amount in comparison to $2.59bn spent on cheaper Chinese military equipment. In the face of a heated Sino-Indian relationship, the United States has decided to pursue a pro-active approach to win over Bangladesh.

Just this September, exiting US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper spoke to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, proposing a military modernization plan by 2030, starting it off by selling advanced military gears such as Apache helicopters and missiles. A deeper security cooperation is of “mutual interest, with full respect for Bangladesh’s sovereignty and independence of action,” writes Laura Stone, Deputy Assistant Secretary with the US Department of State. 

Off the bat, the United States defense diplomacy is a reminder of tough love, that Chinese economic cooperation is not a free ticket into the region to exploit and coerce. This check-and-balance to Chinese checkbook diplomacy is crucial because it illustrates that diplomacy is not a winner-takes-all game -- China cannot get its desired foreign policy success without adequate reciprocation in the form of respect for Bangladesh’s sovereignty and conduct of its international politics. 

If the relationship is strictly transactional, then Bangladesh would have to impose higher costs on China, given prior Chinese operations and circumstances in the region have already raised the stakes much higher for Dhaka. 

Bangladesh’s engagement with the US also indicates that global trade wars do not have to be hegemonic. Defying speculation, refusing to bandwagon behind one super power, and choosing to remain geopolitically neutral is one of the most crucial pieces of foreign policy play which aligns with the Bangladeshi national interest of friendly relations with all and malice to none. Most importantly, Bangladesh has shown to be highly aware of Chinese grey zone tactics and does not want to hedge its chances. 

In 2011, the Chinese foreign minister addressed Beijing’s South China Sea ambitions with “China is a big country, others are small countries. Think hard about that.” This is the exact foreign policy outlook that allows China to justify exertion of power and forceful creation of influence in the Asian region. 

Engaging in American defense diplomacy, while sending a pointed message across to the strongest neighbour and ally, is the necessary and sufficient policy outlook that will not compromise on Chinese investment in Bangladesh but will surely keep them on their toes.

Asif Muztaba Hassan is a Masters Graduate in Strategic Studies from RSIS, NTU, Singapore.

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