The successive visits of high-ranking officials from Washington to our region, including Bangladesh capital Dhaka, in the space of the last fortnight, signify the shifting sands of geopolitics in the region occasioned by what is now the fully-formed rivalry between the United States and China at the top of the international order. Even four years ago, there was hope that China’s inexorable rise could be accommodated peacefully.
These last four years put paid to those hopes. Now, whoever wins next week’s US election, it is difficult to foresee a new, more conciliatory path that can be charted for the relationship by any incoming or new administration. The die has been cast for the foreseeable future. Indeed, if the predictions turn out to be true and the democrats win the election, then the policy shift Trump has successfully engineered towards China may well turn out to be his deepest and most lasting legacy.
Rather frustratingly for those who had anticipated the 21st century to be an Asian bonanza, marked by cooperation and goodwill between its many peoples and nations, today we are confronted with a situation where the wedge in some cases would seem to have been driven too deep. For years, it was felt that the adversarial position that defined the relationship between its two biggest nations - China and India - would wither away as more and more of their people left behind the grinding conditions of persistent poverty. Nothing can sow bitterness in a man’s heart quite like an empty stomach, or scarcity in general, and Bangladeshis certainly know a thing or two about it. Yet despite lifting millions, or perhaps tens of millions, out of these debilitating circumstances, the Chinese and the Indians today seem to be having a tough time resolving differences over the remote, mostly uninhabitable terrain in the Himalayan ranges.
As the tension in the mountains persists, the design and maintenance of Bangladesh’s foreign policy matrix becomes an interesting challenge. The way the current administration, or the successive governments under Sheikh Hasina’s leadership have managed to balance their engagements with Beijing and New Delhi deserves to be commended. But maintaining that balance in the absence of hostilities is a pretty straightforward affair. With Indian and Chinese troops eyeball-to-eyeball for close to 7 months now, it is as if the pressure grows on Bangladesh each time we engage with either nation – to choose one or the other.
As long as we can avoid that, there is a chance that one day, Bangladesh will become the bridge between China and India.