Editorial

Indo-China Tussle, Gainer Bangladesh

Bangladesh, of course, cannot escape the geographical reality that it is almost completely surrounded by India with a 4,096-kilometer shared border. Robust and cordial ties with India are thus critical for Bangladesh’s economic development and national security. Most crucially, Bangladesh’s water supply is dependent on rivers that flow into the country from neighboring India. Water sharing issues have badly strained bilateral relations, a conflict that China has sought to leverage to its own advantage. After failing to secure a water-sharing agreement with India over the Teesta river, the fourth-longest river in the country that flows from India, Bangladesh turned to China to develop a US$1 billion agreement to prevent floods and erosion during rains and water shortages in the dry season. At the same time, as the Bangladeshi newspaper Daily Star reported on October 7, work on almost all nine China-funded projects worth $7.1 billion is reportedly moving ahead. Those include a multi-purpose rail and road bridge on the Padma river (known as the Ganges in India) built by the state-owned China Major Bridge Engineering Company, a telecom network modernization program and upgrades to the national power system. With annual bilateral trade valued at approximately $15 billion, China is Bangladesh’s largest trading partner. Trade with India is only slightly more than a third of that amount. The groundwork has also been laid for stronger strategic ties. Bangladesh’s military is now equipped with Chinese tanks, Chinese-built frigates and submarines and Chinese-made fighter jets. Bangladeshi military personnel receive training in China while Chinese military delegations pay regular visits to Bangladesh, raising antennae in New Delhi. Most analysts would argue China’s main interests in Bangladesh are not bridges and electric power systems but rather access to its strategic ports on the Bay of Bengal. China is keen to build a new deep seaport in Bangladesh, as part of a wider scheme to secure its power and influence in the Indian Ocean. That is seen in China’s investments in the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, the Kyaukphyu port in Myanmar, Gwadar in Pakistan and the establishment of a naval base in Djibouti, China’s first overseas military base. Hasina’s commitment to China came just weeks after Dhaka signed an agreement with New Delhi for access to the same ports, including for sending goods to the isolated states in India’s northeast known as the “Seven Sisters.” Those often restive states are connected with the rest of India through a narrow strip of land between northern Bangladesh and Bhutan. At the same time, the Rohingya refugee crisis has hampered China-Bangladesh relations. In June 2019, Dhaka asked for Beijing’s support for what Foreign Minister Abul Kalam Abdul Momen termed “the safe and dignified return of Rohingya Muslims to their own land in Myanmar. India-Bangladesh relations deteriorated last year when India passed an amendment to its citizenship laws which made it easier for non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan to acquire Indian citizenship. The law was passed after a program to register residents in the northeastern state of Assam, where many illegal migrants from Bangladesh live and work. Many in Bangladesh feared that the registration program and new law could spark an exodus of Muslims in India into Bangladesh. Due to Covid-19 caused shortages, India recently banned the export of onions without informing Bangladesh. It was only after loud protests in Bangladesh that India, at the end of September, allowed some exports of onions — but only to prevent China and another bitter rival, Pakistan, from filling the gap. Despite being especially hard hit by the Covid-19 crisis, India is also competing with China to deliver vaccines to Bangladesh. Here, too, Bangladesh is hedging its bets. Bangladesh thus now finds itself in the vulnerable middle of the region’s budding new Cold War. Faced with its own resource constraints, India is reportedly now looking at the possibility of cooperating with Japan to counter China’s rising influence in Bangladesh.

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