Being the Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) at the National University in Singapore, incidentally now ranked Asia’s foremost University, places me on a perch with a wide view of current global events. I thought I would take advantage of this situation to share my views on these with my compatriots in Bangladesh under the banner of the generic title of ‘From the Little Red Dot’ in the journal ‘The Dhaka Courier’. The expression is now a cognomen for Singapore, initially used a tad disparagingly by a former Indonesian President to describe this tiny city-State. However, it has since been adopted with pride by Singaporeans themselves as a reflection of their incredible successes across a broad spectrum despite the physical constraints. Significant global and indeed regional issues are analysed with great interest in Singapore, and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s on-going visit to China is seen by many as one such.
This visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to China from 1st to 5th July will be a watershed in Bangladesh-China relations. There were two parts to the visit; the first , to attend the annual meeting of the New Champions, or ‘Summer Davos’ as it is also known, in Dalian, between the 1st and the 3rd , and the rest of the time spent in meetings with the Chinese leadership, including a key ‘one-on-one’ discussion between her and China’s President Xi Jinping. A number of important Memoranda of Understanding were signed , mainly focussed on the power sector, though agreements on other issues such as the broad economic and technical cooperation, , setting up of an investment collaboration working group, cultural and tourism programmes and implementation plan on information sharing on the Brahmaputra river also featured. Even earlier the Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abdul Momen had stressed the priority his side accorded to the Rohingya issue, which was also the case but the possible impact on the resolution of that intractable dispute as a result of the talks was unclear.
It is interesting to watch how quickly Bangladesh-China relations have evolved. Initially China dragged its feet in recognizing Bangladesh. But it was careful to couch it in terms of not objecting to the birth of Bangladesh per se, but as Ambassador Huang Hua put it in the United Nations in a phrase that was quintessentially Chinese diplomatese , in opposing ‘the singing in a duet of Soviet socialist imperialism and Indian expansionism’. To the credit of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and his diplomatic astuteness, he took every advantage of past sentiments to repair these fences. After all it was the Bengalis in Pakistan who were instrumental in forging close relations between Pakistan and China, whose numbers included Prime Minister Shaheed Suhrawardy, Mowlana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani and Mujib himself. Indeed, on establishment of diplomatic links, Bangladesh retained the same Pakistani Ambassador to Beijing, KM Kaiser, a diplomat from Dhaka with close ties with Chinese senior politicians. The bilateral relationship grew under every government in both countries and probably reached its peak after Xi Jinping’s historic visit to Bangladesh in 2016. Following that event , Bangladesh joined the Chinese mega-project of the Road and Belt Initiative (BRI), an offshoot of Xi’s ‘China Dream ‘ (Zhang Guomeng),with promises of Chinese investments exceeding US $24 billion.
Important elements of the Bangladeshi government also saw key benefits accruing from the relationship. First there was the business community. Understandably, enormous interest was shown by trade circles in the BRI investments. Bilateral trade exceeded US $16 billion dollars, rising by nearly 6% annually in recent times, with China now as the number one trading partner. It should be noted that the business community plays a lead role in national politics and in the parliament of Bangladesh. Second there is the armed forces. They procure equipment and training massively from China. Recently two submarines were purchased, which required a modicum of mollification of Indian concerns. Third, the intellectuals and the politically activist Bangladeshi student groups whose predilections have traditionally veered towards China. Sometimes, in Bangladesh, relationship with China appears to be seen as akin ‘motherhood’, which all tend to praise and none to decry.
But practical regional politics would not allow for lack of restraint in this near-strategic relationship. There is the India factor to be mindful of. India would be chary of a burgeoning Chinese influence in its own backyard. Bangladesh is, indeed, ‘India-locked’, and not just geographically. Careful navigation between the two relationships of Bangladesh, with India and with China, will call for deft diplomacy on the part of Dhaka. At present it appears India is pleased with the security relationship it has with Bangladesh which takes an extremely strong negative view of Indian insurgents taking any advantage of its territory in carrying out their activities. In return, it appears as of now, that India is happy to allow China to play its larger role in the economic sphere since it simply does not possess the requisite matching funds. At the same time India would be understandably keen to deny China the kind of influence in this country, which is almost India’s underbelly, that Beijing currently enjoys in Pakistan.
Then there is the global scenario: The impact on the larger global US-China spat on Bangladesh –China relations. For now, it seems that President Donald Trump’s withdrawal into isolationist unilateralism has eroded the US presence on Bangladesh’s political screen. But at the same time America and the West will continue to be of significance to Bangladesh. It is not just , though also, a view that with the sanctions on China , relocation of affected industries to Bangladesh might be advantageous to this country just as it has been , say to Vietnam ; but also because there are political , intellectual , emotional and migratory links that will keep Bangladesh tied to the US , Trump notwithstanding. Sometimes unconventional ideas generating in America arouse interest in Bangladesh. One such is a recent suggestion of a US legislator, Congressman Bradley Sherman, that, if Myanmar is reluctant to address the Rohingya issue, then the Rakhine state could be delinked from Myanmar and joined to Bangladesh! Right now it is not a proposition that might hold water. But if the crisis persists it would be unsurprising for such ideas to turn up, from time to time, but with some amount of regularity, like a bad penny! The inscrutability of politics is an abiding phenomenon of the annals of humanity. So on Dhaka’s part, a focus on Washington will be ever-present. Nonetheless, it will not be lost in Dhaka that China is increasingly poised to play a pivotal role globally, is likely to deepen its interest in a Bangladesh that is also said to be ‘on the rise, and rise’, though at a very different level.
It is possible, therefore, that the challenge of Bangladesh diplomacy will be to try find its sweet spot between the rock and a hard place! Its ability to do so may be critical to its future.
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is Principal Research Fellow at ISAS, National University of Singapore, former Foreign Advisor and President of Cosmos Foundation Bangladesh.