Bangladesh was ambushed by Myanmar and its Rohingya ethnic cleansing policy two years back and generally dumped by almost all the powers that mattered. Since then it has learnt to do some tight rope walking for survival. Although it has been into damage control since then, the experiences of the contingent impact of regional politics of international dimensions has also toughened it up.
Learning from weakness
The problem has been that of learning to negotiate from a position of weakness. In all fairness, this space has widened due to the Indo-Chinese rivalry and the various positions taken by respective allies. Unlike other countries in the region, Bangladesh is not entirely beholden to either India or China but nor is able to put pressure on any. Nobody really needs Bangladesh except but. It’s not strong enough to exert pressure but not weak enough to lie down and die. It’s not an enviable position but one less constricted than that held by other smaller or weaker nations of the region.
While Pakistan survives on its hostility with India and the consequent strategic and other support from China, Bangladesh has no conflict with any country at the state level. That doesn’t give her much add-ons to what she has naturally inherited. But given its geography, size and economic capacity, its proximity with India makes it its closest neighbour in every aspect.
However, such has been the impact of China’s economic outreach in the last decade that it has pushed others away to become BD’s main economic partner. And BD, half willingly, half due to lack of options doesn’t mind this situation. Suddenly, it has money flowing and at least words of encouragement and hope offered by China. China has kept Myanmar happy for so long. And it might even prevent more Rohingya from coming in if not repatriated, if its dollars find a home to lay eggs in Dhaka.
Advantaged by bigger rivalries
There is no reason to like this scenario of Chinese proximity by India who is concerned about such a presence next door. Bangladesh is a country with few options other than to be an ally of India. But if it even wriggles and shifts a bit away to shake Sino hands, it makes India suspicious if not edgy. This Sino-Indo rivalry of sorts has certainly widened Bangladesh’s negotiating space.
Thus BD welcomes China even it means carrying the Rohingyas cross on its back and near denial of any solution brokering by the Chinese that is less than comfortable for Myanmar. For the moment certainly, Yangoon is more valuable to Beijing and Bangladesh appears to be ready to weather that longish season. After all, no political pressure exists.
The Chinese themselves had been a wee bit concerned that the impact of the Rohingya problem on the 2018 elections would have if AL didn’t win but once they were assured that there would be no problem, the relationship has been more status quo friendly.
The cost-benefit analysis is still by Bangladesh’s calculations on its side. It’s on this background that the PM Sheikh Hasina’s visit to Beijing that has occurred.
Sheikh Hasina’s visit, unmet and met needs
PMs Sk. Hasina and Li Keqiang signed five agreements, three memorandums of understanding (MoUs) and a document covering Rohingya crisis as well as various economic, technical cooperation and cultural sectors. On the Rohingya Refugees Rice Aid’’, China has promised to provide 2,500 tonnes of rice for the Rohingyas from Myanmar. The signal though half read is that they are here to stay.
One area in which China’s interest is high is the Bangladesh-China- India-Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor which has failed to take off as yet though it’s not up to Bangladesh but Myanmar. With nearly USD 31 billion investments, China is the biggest player in town though mainly in the infrastructure and energy sectors. India is much more involved in the social sector and border trade. India’s concern has been increasing as the billions have made China an influencer in Bangladesh without sharing a common border.
Chinese investment in Bangladesh is next to the USD 60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This includes the 3.7 billion investments in the highly sensitive Padma Bridge, showcased by the PM as the top achievement of her Government.
The CPEC and the BCIM were part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) but while the CPEC took off, the BCIM didn’t. The 2800-km long BCIM corridor proposes to link Kunming in China’s Yunnan province with Kolkata, passing though Mandalay in Myanmar and Dhaka in Bangladesh before heading to Kolkata.
India has protested that the CPEC is planned through what calls “Pakistan-occupied Kashmir “but the plan is unlikely to be affected by Indian protests. While China is trying to get BCIM going, it’s not up to Bangladesh as the key to implementation is India which is currently strong enough to resist current Chinese pressure.
How this pans out will depend on many matters but few are under Bangladesh’s control. During the visit, PM Hasina got the CPC to say that it will take up the Rohingya issue with Myanmar which is good enough for the moment for all. China knows already how far that will go but as it moves from Myanmar- only relationship status to include Bangladesh as an ally as well, China will also play with both. That will mean some concessions for BD. It will happen because China needs to keep more players happy.
In the current regional hustling, disadvantage and gains both accrue whether one chooses or not. To understand this and play the game is a strategy Bangladesh is slowly understanding better, whether it likes it or not.