China and the Modi Visit to Bangladesh

China-Bangladesh relations have progressed significantly over the years. China has been Bangladesh’s largest trading partner for several years now and is also increasingly a major investor in the country with commitments to various physical infrastructure projects ranging from bridges and railways to water and sewage treatment plants. After the World Bank withdrew from the project of building of a bridge over the River Padma in Bangladesh’s southwest, it is the Chinese that have agreed to step in.

There was little coverage of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh in June this year but it is worth noting that China sent Vice Premier Liu Yandong to Bangladesh in late May to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and Bangladesh. The irony of course, is that the PRC exercised its first veto as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to block the newly-created Bangladesh’s admission to the United Nations. Liu’s visit, in fact, followed one by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in December 2014. In a significant attempt to align their political aspirations Liu talked about the two sides together realizing ‘the Chinese Dream and “the dream of a golden Bangladesh”’ and also noted Bangladesh’s support for the Xi Jinping administration’s flagship ‘one belt, one road’ (OBOR) initiative.

Meanwhile, at least a few Bangladeshi scholars have noted that the details of the OBOR were far from clear – how would it be feasible, for example, to have both Chittagong and Kolkata to develop as major ports in close proximity to each other as many Chinese maps of the 21st Maritime Silk Road tended to show?  However, for Bangladeshi politicians and policymakers, an association with China has also had several advantages and fills critical gaps as far as the national economy is concerned as indicated above. These are areas where India has failed to make its presence felt due to fraught political ties with Dhaka over the decades.

This has also had military and strategic consequences. From 2009 to 2013, 82% of Bangladesh’s arms and equipment have come from China, making it the world’s third-largest buyer of Chinese weapons. Bangladesh is also in line to receive its first submarines from China at US$206 million by 2019 at the latest with China also providing the necessary training for its sailors. A Chinese-built frigate is also being exported which will become the Bangladesh navy’s most advanced warship. It is also probably only a matter of time before the JF-17 Thunderbird fighter – jointly produced by China and Pakistan – will find its way to the Bangladeshi air force.

Chinese commentary on India’s ratification of the four-decade-old Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) with Bangladesh mostly involved quoting foreign media on one or the other aspect of the Indian rivalry with China. One pointed out that Indian disagreements with Bangladesh were easier to resolve than those with the China or with Pakistan while another suggested, again quoting a foreign newspaper, that India had resolved matters with Bangladesh ‘because of China’, the point being Modi was trying to ensure that Beijing did not gain in influence in India’s neighbourhood. Otherwise, the Chinese stuck to merely explaining why India and Bangladesh exchanged enclaves without drawing any inferences for the resolution of the Sino-Indian boundary dispute or bilateral ties.

Indeed, as in the case of the resolution of the India-Bangladesh maritime boundary dispute through a decision of an international arbitration tribunal where India accepted the decision that went in favour of Bangladesh, Chinese media appeared unwilling to acknowledge that India respected international law enough to accept decisions even when they went against it or that it could be actually resolve a long-standing territorial dispute to mutual satisfaction.

Especially, in Southeast Asia, where several countries are currently embroiled in maritime territorial disputes with China, these developments concerning India have not gone unnoticed. However, without India actively promoting these as a sign of its maturity as a regional and global power, its achievements have soon slipped out of Southeast minds and are probably seen as too particular an instance to be of any relevance in their contention with the Chinese.

This is a major loss of an opportunity for New Delhi not just in its ties with Southeast Asia but also with China. If India were to promote its acceptance of the international tribunal decision and the LBA with Bangladesh more aggressively, China would be more circumspect about its own relations with Bangladesh. Instead, it would appear that it is what remains undone in India-Bangladesh relations – such as an agreement on the Teesta waters – that continues to remain front and centre of the Indo-Bangladeshi relationship as well as in the international understanding of this relationship.

China, meanwhile, takes advantage. Already in the case of the Brahmaputra waters, another emotive issue in Bangladesh, China apparently shares more information from monitoring stations on the Yarlung Tsangbo than it does with India.[1] While Chinese commentary has tried to dismiss any significance of India’s bilateral agreements with Bangladesh for the use of Chittagong and Mongla ports by Indian cargo ships, there is also news that in response to the India-Bangladesh maritime settlement, China is also proposing several MoUs on maritime collaboration. The results of these will almost certainly be tied into the Chinese Maritime Silk Road initiative.

NOTE

[1] This information came to light in a discussion that this author had with Indian and Bangladeshi water experts and engineers in Dhaka in May 2015.

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