China now has strategic interest in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is strategically important to China for dominating the Bay of Bengal in conjunction with Myanmar, writes Lt Gen P. C. Katoch (Retd) for South Asia Monitor

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Recent anti-government protests in Bangladesh and the media interview by former General Chowdhury Hasan Sarwardy on July 14, 2020 denouncing the Sheikh Hasina government appear to be following a pattern. Sarwardy has his grudges for not having been appointed Bangladesh Army chief but his call for a "popular uprising" without which, as per him, government change was not possible, and his anti-India rhetoric indicates his hour-long interview was possibly sponsored.

The blueprint is quite similar to how Beijing got Nepal into its fold. Sarwardy’s open call for "popular uprising" is not very different from calling for 'people’s war' – a trademark of China’s Communist Party (CCP).

China-Bangladesh relations

Bangladesh is the second biggest importer of Chinese arms after Pakistan. The anti-ship missile launchpad close to Chittagong Port was built with Chinese assistance. In collaboration with China, Bangladesh successfully test-fired anti-ship missile C-802A (a modified version of China’s Yinh Ji-802) with a range of 120 km in May 2008 from BNS Osman, which is Chinese built Jianghu class frigate. 

Bangladesh-China relations are to China’s advantage. As of 2019, Bangladesh's bilateral trade deficit with China had increased 1600 percent in the last 20 years, even as 25 percent of Bangladesh's total imports were from China. China has given several loans to Bangladesh on less favorable terms than loans given by India and has offered to build nuclear power plants in Bangladesh. From July 1, 2020, China has waived tariffs of 97 percent products of Bangladesh.

It is a well-documented fact that the Awami League government of Bangladesh under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has clamped down hard on terrorism and radicalization and has collaborated with India actively on the issue,  handing over many suspected terrorists to India whenever requested. In contrast, the previous Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) government under Khalida Zia was running anti-India terrorist camps in Bangladesh while the then Bangladesh Army was practicing their own version of ‘cold start’ into Indian territory to be sustained for the first few days by insurgent-cum-terrorist organizations in the narrow land corridor linking India’s northeast. These terrorist camps had instructors from Al Qaeda, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).

China has been accused of triggering the Wuhan virus worldwide. And by unleashing aggression in Eastern Ladakh in India, Beijing has dropped all pretensions to peace, showing open hostility that it wants to downsize India. At China’s behest, Pakistan has mobilized its military in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India. China recently made a new illegal claim to Bhutan’s Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary where it can possibly intrude and force India into another standoff. China’s state-sponsored media has been threatening that China can destabilize India’s Northeast which can be cut off and that India will have to fight a three-front war with China, Pakistan, and Nepal.

Beijing must have keenly observed the National Citizenship Register (NRC) exercise of Assam in India and also the subsequent assertion by India’s Home Minister Amit Shah that anyone not included in the NRC would be deported. This statement drew a strong reaction from Bangladesh since out of the 1.1 million individuals not included in NRC Assam, 800,000 were allegedly Bangladeshi Muslims who had crossed over into India over a period of time. Bangladesh foreign minister and home minister both canceled their visit to India in protest. According to Bangladeshi media, their country was being deliberately targeted because, in the event of an all-India NRC, India would not deport anyone to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi had assured Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina that NRC Assam would not affect Bangladesh, the ambiguity was apparently enough for anyone to fuel dissent.

The Rohingya issue

China loves rogue regimes and has demonstrated a propensity to favor and optimize the use of terrorist and terrorist organizations. Unfortunately for China, Hasina’s government has clamped down on terrorism and radical elements remain subdued with the government crackdown. Open hobnobbing with indigenous terrorist organizations of Bangladesh can raise suspicions but to China’s apparent glee there are some 1.1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.  According to a media report of March 6, 2019    (https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/china-offers-cash-to-lure-rohingya-refugees-to-myanmar/1410879) a Chinese government delegation met Rohingya refugees at Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh and promised them the US $6000 each if they returned to Rakhine State in Myanmar from where they had fled. A Bangladeshi official who attended the meeting confirmed the news.

Why would China offer the US $6000 to every Rohingya refugee in Bangladesh is not difficult to guess? Myanmar has recently said that a foreign country (read China) is behind arming the insurgent group Arakan Army in their country. China is breeding proxies in Myanmar that it will use to pressure Myanmar and against India and Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is strategically important to China for dominating the Bay of Bengal in conjunction with Myanmar.  At the behest of Beijing, Pakistan too is making extraordinary efforts to get closer to Bangladesh. Beijing would want the Hasina government to get under China’s wings like Nepal to further Beijing’s global ambitions on the latter’s terms. If that does not happen, China may even be planning regime change in Dhaka by fuelling popular uprising or putting it more directly - 'people’s war'! 

(The writer is an Indian Army veteran. The views expressed are personal and are not necessarily shared by editors of SAM)

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