Almost since its inception, Bangladesh, to further its own perceived national self- interests, has sought good relations with both India and China, and has had to take resource to deft diplomacy to keep them both engaged in Bangladesh’s development and progress. The essay will seek to demonstrate how. At the same time, it would argue that unpredictable global developments in the post-COVID era could upset the applecart for all concerned.
In a very broad sense, since its nascence, Bangladesh has had two foreign policy aspirations; the first was its search for security and the preservation of its sovereignty, and the second was its quest for development and economic welfare.
The first required the space for the maintenance of sufficient manoeuverability in policy making, particularly as it was a weaker neighbour bordering a far larger state, India. As Professor Hedley Bull had asserted, as asserted, as a general rule, “the deepest fears of the smaller units in the global system are their larger neighbours”. Bangladesh, therefore, for the sake of a modicum of regional harmony, always appeared to have felt the need to live in ‘concord’ with , but ‘distinct’ from that powerful country. The ‘concord’ was necessary because of Bangladesh’s geography- the nation was virtually ‘India-locked’, surrounded by this neighbour except for Myanmar on one side and a coastline on the Bay of Bengal. The need to remain ‘distinct’ was essential because Bangladesh’s own separate identity, as separate from the Indian communities surrounding it, a sine- qua-non for its claim to sovereignty, could only be defined in those terms.
The second aspiration, the quest for resources for development and economic welfare, meant having to involve itself with a range of other countries. Initially it was the West, which provided the new-born nation state with considerable aid to enable it to support itself and , thereafter, offering a large market as Bangladesh managed to utilize the foreign assistance effectively and shift its economic thrust from agriculture to manufacturing, starting with ready- made garments. Eventually, as Bangladesh developed further steadily but surely, it began to need massive investments into the energy sector that was needed to fuel this growth, and necessary infrastructure to facilitate the progress.
One nation, a rapidly rising power, though not a neighbour but located in close enough proximity, was China. Bangladesh sorely needed such assistance. And China was ready to help. But the problem was China and India viewed each other as more than competitors, indeed as rivals on the regional and global plane. To curry favour of one risked the danger of raising the ire of the other. It is also true that the reason China was so keen on Bangladesh was precisely the desire to supplant the influence of India, which had a head-start as India was the only ally in Bangladesh’s war of liberation from Pakistan in 1971. China, a close friend of Pakistan, then as now, was slow to relate to Bangladesh. But when the opportunity came it did so in a big way. This put Bangladesh in a difficult spot, between Scylla and Charybdis. Handling India and China simultaneously called for unusual diplomatic deftness. But Bangladesh did not seem to be coy about attempting it. Perhaps because, in really it did not have a choice. It is also true that to be able to follow through on such a strategy, much more than the wish to do so will be necessary. It will require clout and capabilities that Bangladesh, smallest and the weakest of the three actors may not readily possess. This situation between the three countries, which is still current, had its origin in the assumption of the office of the three leaders of Bangladesh, China and India; Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh in 2009, Xi Jinping in China in 2013 and Narendra Modi in India in 2014. It is also true that to be able to adopt the appropriate tactics much more than simply wish is necessary. It would require clout and capabilities.
Bangladesh’s dual heritage of its ‘Muslimness’ and ‘Bengalines’ contribute significantly to shaping its external behaviour . Traditionally the received wisdom has been the characteristics are represented by the nation’s two largest political parties: ‘Muslimness’ by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), of an ideology veering slightly right-of-the centre led by Begum Khaleda Zia and the ‘Bengaliness’ by the Awami League(AL) led by Sheikh Hasina , politically positioned slightly left- of -the -centre. The former is known to favour China more and the latter, India, though exigencies of necessity has sometimes blurred this. But throughout the period mainly covered by this article ,Sheikh Hasina and her AL have been in government. The BNP was in power till 2007, following which a Caretaker government ran the country for two years, held elections which were won by Sheikh Hasina and the AL. Relations with India , fraught till 2007 , were eased during the Caretaker government, which pleased Indian leaders , who were further contented when the AL led the coalition government following elections. Indeed, Sheikh Hasina was described by the then Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, of the Congress-led Government of prime Minister Manmohan Singh, as a “close family friend”.
Relations with India got off to a good start. Hasina assured India that Bangladesh soil would not be allowed to be used by insurgents of North East India, to India’s great relief. The ‘Tin Bigha’ dispute, an apple of discord between the two countries for four decades, was resolved in September 2011. Bangladesh showed keenness to remove barriers to transit trade that India wanted so badly. A senior Bangladeshi policy maker , Masihur Rahman even stated to charge transit fees from India would not be a “civilized act”. The bonhomie continued even when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with Prime Minister Narendra Modi came into office in May 2014. Immediately thereafter, in June, Sushma Swaraj, the BJP Foreign Minister visited Dhaka. On 7 May 2015, in presence of Bangladeshi diplomats, the Indian Parliament unanimously approved the Land boundary Agreement with Bangladesh, a no mean accomplishment, given the complexity of the issue of the ‘enclaves’.
The continued , even burgeoning, connections, were aided in some measure by the fac that Pranab Mukherjee continued in his position as the president Of India, though the titular position on was rendered even more so because he was from the Congress and the BJP was in power. But this difference had no impact on links with Bangladesh and the BJP was happy to receive Mukherjee’s helping hand in this regard. Then Narendra Modi himself visited Dhaka in June 2015. The red carpet was rolled out. As many as 22 bilateral agreements were signed, including on Maritime Safety Cooperation. India extended US $2 billion line of credit and pledged US $ 5 billion in investments. Hasina was accorded a very warm welcome when she reciprocated with a visit to India in 2017.
But some issues between the two countries remained, and indeed the delay in their resolution was a matter of growing disaffection in Bangladesh. A major one was that pertaining to water-sharing of the 414 -mile long Teesta river that flowed through West Bengal, Sikkim and Bangladesh into the Bay of Bengal. Its flood plain covers almost 14 percent of Bangladesh’s crop area and provides livelihood to 73 percent of its people. At the same time, lifeline in the north of thr Indian State of West Bengal and a dozen of its districts are dependent on the Teesta. Though Article 253 of the Indian Constitution allows the Central government to negotiate and conclude transboundary agreements, the West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee prevented Delhi from signing the water-sharing deal . This went down badly in Dhaka. Another issue was killings of Bangladeshi nationals on the Indo-Bangladesh borders. These continued unabated and raised considerable public ire in Bangladesh. In the meantime the Indian legislations such as the Citizenship amendment Act and the preparation of National Register of Citizens raised concerns in Bangladesh , not only because they were seen as discriminatory against Indian Muslims, co-religionists of an overwhelming majority of Bangladeshis, but also because of the fear that “delisted” Muslims could be subjects of the policy of “push in” to Bangladesh. The revocation of Article 370 with regard to Jammu and Kashmir also had a felt impact on public sentiments. The Bangladesh government seemed keen to avoid an outright conflict with India. Dhaka’s Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen described the legislations as “India’s internal policy”, in line with new Delhi’s position , but also added in the same breath that, because of these “if [there are] uncertainties in India, it might affect its neighbours”.
Hasina’s visit to India in October 2019 was expected to address some of those issues, but that was not to be. Furthermore, the anticipated signing of the Teesta deal did not happen. There were some unfortunate protocol gaps, that some Bangladeshi media even saw as deliberate, due to the increasing Chinese links. However, Hasina was still anxious to have Modi for the centenary celebrations of the birth of her father, the Father of the Nation of Bangladesh Bangabandhu sheikh Mujibur Rahman in March in Dhaka. By then communal riots spread in India. In Bangladesh there were public demonstrations against Modi’s visit, though the government remained keen. Around that time COVID -19 virus began to be registered both in Dhaka and Delhi. The visit was postponed, and there was “face saving” on all sides.
China did not endorse the break-up of its close ally Pakistan in 1971, and thus, by implication the birth of Bangladesh. However, throughout the political history of what was then East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh, progressive left, ‘pro-Peking’ (Beijing)’ sentiments always had strong roots not only among the intelligentsia but also among the masses. Premier Zhou Enlai was among the first foreign leaders to visit Dhaka (1956), when he had received a tumultuous reception. After 1971 China put out the position that it was not opposed to Bangladesh per se, but only to the “singing in a duet of Soviet Social imperialism and Indian expansionism “(India and the Soviet Union were the main champions of Bangladeshi independence). As a young politician Mujib had also been on a delegation to China in the early days. So as Bangladesh’s leader he intellectually seemed to understand China’s position. China’s position eased with the mutual recognition of Pakistan and Bangladesh in February 1974. In June China expressed satisfaction at Bangladesh’s membership of the United Nations, having opposed it earlier. The Bangladesh -China relationship took off in real earnest, and though it never reached the level of Pakistan, it appeared as an attractive model worth emulating to many Bangladeshis.
The two significant watershed points in recent times have been Hasina’s visit to Beijing in 2014, and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Bangladesh in 2016. China, always the major source of military hardware for Bangladesh, sold two submarines, that reportedly raised some eyebrows in new Delhi. But it satisfied an important aspiration of the Bangladesh navy. During Xi’s visit in 2016, bilateral relations were raised to the level of Strategic partnership of Cooperation, such nomenclatures being exceedingly important in the Chinese diplomatic lexicon. In Xi ‘s presence, China signed off on22 projects proposed by the Bangladesh side across sectors such as power and energy, internet connectivity river management infrastructures including the all-important Padma Bridge. Bangladesh thus became completely enmeshed in Xi’s ‘Belt and road initiative’ (BRI) which incidentally, India opposes, nut the credit quantum of US $ 32 billion was too great to forego. It was useful for Bangladesh that China’s ‘Kunming Initiative’ had evolved into BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar), a sub-regional organizations one of several supplanting the almost-defunct South Asian Association for Regional cooperation this would enable Bangladesh to involve India in some of the china-funded projects , by putting these components formally under the rubric of BCIM , which India favours , rather than BRI which India shuns!
While , relations with India and China , are important for Bangladesh, so are those with the United States, and the European Union (including the United Kingdom), With Bangladesh’s commendable performance economic and social indices achieved performance in the pre-Covid 19 era, it was poised to graduate from the list of Least Developed Countries. It was in the midst of negotiating continued market access of its key manufactures, ready- made garments, into the US and Europe. But the rapidly deteriorating relations between the US and China, and to a lesser extent between Europe and China in the wake of the current pandemic can pose a problem for Bangladesh. Bangladesh will require to keep a watchful eye on whether any kind of sanctions are imposed on China, and whether these would have any ramifications for Bangladesh, given its close economic and security links with China. In many ways navigating between the US and China, should the world confront a new cold war situation, might become a greater challenge for Bangladesh than the problem of handling India and China.
The West has been a good ally for Bangladesh on the Rohingya issue. The US and the European Union have influenced international institutions to be actively engaged with Myanmar and putting pressure on the country to comply with acceptable global norms. Both China and India have been less forthcoming, though China does act helpfully behind the scenes at times, as in defusing a potential maritime conflict between Bangladesh and Myanmar in November 2008. India is likely be in the UN Security Council for a two- year period as of 2021 as a non-permanent member. This is also the time when the UN Security council might have to deal with issues arising out of the legal ruling on the Rohingya case in the International Court of justice in the Hague. India’s role on the Rohingya issue can impact on future Delhi-Dhaka relations.
However, so far, to India’s satisfaction, the Bangladesh government has stood firm is ensuring that the Bangladeshi soil is not used for insurgency operations in India’s troubled north east. India has also reciprocated by handing over to the Bangladeshi authorities a convicted assassin of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was apparently hind in West Bengal. It has also not relented to Chinese wishes to award them the construction of a deep sea- port near Chittagong which the Indians perceived as a potential security threat. Instead the deep- sea port port was planned at Payra to the west of Chittagong in Patuakhali district. In it Bangladesh has interestingly managed to attract both Chinese and Indian investments, billing it as both a BRI and BCIM initiative. This is an interesting model of getting India and China to work together , the Chinese viewing it as a BRI project and the Indians as a BCIM one. However, China with its deep pocket, dominated the investment scene. Indeed, in quantum Chinese investments in Bangladesh were reportedly only second to Pakistan. Responding to the author’s query, the Bangladesh Finance Minister stated that for Bangladesh being caught in a ‘debt-trap’ was not a worry, as the amortization schedule has been worked out and Bangladesh’s record in this respect has been good.
So, Bangladesh has to- date , succeeded in ‘managing’ both India and China by involving India more in matters pertaining to security (as distinct from defence, where China remains the major source of procurement), and letting China rule the roost in infrastructural and other investments. It is noteworthy that this has been facilitated by a tacit understanding on the part of both China and Bangladesh to acquiesce in this dichotomized and shared role in Bangladesh. Credit for this must be shared by all three capitals-Dhaka, Beijing and Delhi. Of course, it is noteworthy that Bangladesh’s relationship with India is more complex for being neigbours. The unresolved Teesta water sharing issue is a case in point. Here China has the luxury of being clos, yet without the problems that shared borders ordinarily entail.
But in the more uncertain future that awaits the post-COVID world there could be unpredictable developments that might shake the harmonious arrangements above. At this writing the US is involved in multifarious problems- race-protests and civil military issues, a hard- hitting pandemic and a chaotic administration – that would preclude its interests in distant crises. This, combined with deeply weakened multilateral institutions could significantly reduce global oversight of hotspots. At this time a rising China, already perceived as a peer of the US, is becoming assertive and is looked in a serious interface with India along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) separating their forces in Ladakh in the Himalayas. An outbreak of conflict could nullify any cooperation between them, as the analysis above demonstrates in Bangladesh. This could mean difficult times for Bangladesh sailing in uncharted seas, as also for many other countries in comparable milieu. One hopes this worst -case scenario will not come to pass.
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, National University of Singapore. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President of Cosmos Foundation Bangladesh. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg