Will Shringla's visit reshape the complex relations between Bangladesh, India and China?

Bangladesh takes a neutral position to whatever happens between the two Asian giants, but Chinese President Xi Jinping's growing influence and strong defence ties with Bangladesh are making India concerned, writes Sarmin Akhter for South Asia Monitor

Sarmin Akter Sep 03, 2020
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The impact of the rise of India and China on the global stage, the international system and the West is also felt acutely in the economic, political and foreign policy realm of Bangladesh. Bangladesh, however, would like to exploit the economic and political opportunities provided by the rise of both the Asian countries but do not wish to be used as a proxy by either and this makes a complex triangle between Bangladesh, India and China.

India has been a long-standing friend of Bangladesh and has played a significant role in the independence of Bangladesh. Since then both are trade, economic and development partners as compared to others in the South Asian region. Yet, Bangladesh has been expressing its disappointment over the pending Teesta river water sharing agreement, border killing, Rohingya influx, and trade deficit. Though Bangladesh described as "national matter" of India as it undertook the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), both the NRC and CAA has created a lot of discomfort in Bangladesh.

Though China opposed Bangladesh’s Independence, it has now developed bilateral ties by being the largest investor, foremost importer, and the biggest trading partner having $18 billion trade transactions in 2019. Bangladesh armed forces are also equipped with Chinese arms, including fighter aircraft, tanks, missile launchers and several weapon systems. Recently, China has granted $1 billion for Teesta irrigation project and 97 percent Bangladeshi products to enjoy zero tariffs to the Chinese market from July 1. However, Indian officials secretly complained that Chinese trade concessions can push Bangladesh into a ‘dual deficit and debt trap.’

Undoubtedly, geopolitical tensions between India and China continue to escalate and there are apprehensions of potential disruption of bilateral ties between New Delhi and Beijing after the deadly Galwan Valley clashes left at least 20 Indian soldiers dead. The Indian government later announced a ban on 59 Chinese apps, including TikTok, WeChat and UC Browser and Xiaomi's Mi Community over national security concerns amid the border tussle in Ladakh. India subsequently banned more apps, taking the total of banned apps to 224, and reportedly reviewing other well-known Chinese companies for their alleged links with China’s People's Liberation Army (PLA).

A neutral Bangladesh

Bangladesh takes a neutral position to whatever happens between the two Asian giants, but Chinese President Xi Jinping's growing influence and strong defence ties with Bangladesh are making India concerned. Siegfried O Wolf, director of research at the South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF), a Brussels-based think tank, and Senior Researcher (affiliated member) at the South Asia Institute (SAI), Heidelberg University, says, “China’s increasing influence in South Asia poses a massive challenge to New Delhi for both political and security reason.”

India is the closest neighbour of all time, more than others, and so it expects more from India. But India lacks the capability to implement any project within the stipulated time frame as compared to China. Also, reciprocity from India’s side appears less visible and that creates the gap. However, India granted 10 broad gauge diesel locomotives to Bangladesh less than five days after Bangladesh allowed Indian goods for its Northeast to dock at the Chittagong port for the first time since its Independence in July. Bangladesh Foreign Minister A K Abdul Momen thanked India and said, “This amazing breakthrough would help bring our two people even closer and further take the rock-solid bilateral relations to new heights.”

Shringla's sudden visit

Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla visited Bangladesh on August 18. If India and Bangladesh are reaffirming their relationship on the all-important economic front then what was making India worried that Shringla had to rush to Bangladesh? Prior to his visit, on August 16, Indian Bengali daily Aajkal reported, “Cooperation in building airport in Bangladesh was announced earlier. This time, China is helping with $1 billion for the Teesta irrigation project. After that, Delhi could no longer remain silent.” 

It seems to be a great concern for India that Dhaka has been cosying up with China, and the visit was aimed at boosting and resetting bilateral relations with Bangladesh.  On his two-day visit, Shringla met with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.  Shringla also met with the foreign minister.

Though it was "an informal visit" without any "fixed agenda", the following issues were discussed, as per the media:

*The two countries have agreed that projects including Rampal Maitree power plant, the India-Bangladesh friendship pipeline, rail links between Akhaura-Agartala, Chilahati-Haldibari, Khulna-Mongla should be done in a timely manner and expected to be done in next year.

*India has assured that Bangladeshi national (Tablighi Jamaat members impacted by lockdown in India and 25 fishermen in custody in Assam) would be returned soon.

*Bangladesh has requested for the urgent reopening of visa as many patients need to visit India for treatment.

*They have also agreed to take initiatives to enhance connectivity and trade via Chittagong port from Agartala to Kolkata and Bangladesh requested to reopen travel through Benapole-Petrapole land port which has been halted by the West Bengal government in the wake of the pandemic.

*Bangladesh has agreed to collaborate with India relating to COVID-19 vaccine trial and look forward to getting the vaccine early with affordable availability when ready.

However, there was no discussion on issues like Teesta water sharing, National Register of Citizens (NRC) and The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, said India’s External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava,  responding to queries of journalists in a virtual meet on August 18.

Bangladesh's options 

Previously, Bangladesh Medical Research Council (BMRC) and the National Technical Advisory Committee approved the last stage trial of COVID-19 vaccine by Chinese firm Sinovac Biotech Ltd. Along with it, the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (ICDDR'B) made all preparation to conduct the trial. But all these progress have been stopped at the eleventh hour when Bangladesh Health and Family Welfare Minister Zahid Malik raised further effectiveness of vaccines in other countries. This stand was criticised by analysts and they pointed out that geopolitical factor was the reason behind it.

Furthermore, Shringla's sudden visit after two days of China’s announcement that Bangladesh will soon be receiving $1 billion for Teesta river project has led to criticism. However, days after Shringla's visit, the government has approved the human trial of COVID-19 vaccine developed by a Chinese company. It is apparent that Bangladesh is trying hard to balance its relationship with both India and China. But they are also trying to maximize benefit from India without upsetting China.

Ali Riaz, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a Professor of Politics and Government at Illinois State University says, “Despite relations having been marked by several patches, Dhaka will not move away from New Delhi.” he added: “Bangladesh has two options. To radically re-align with China leaving India or hedging-that is-to balance between both. In my opinion, Dhaka is close to hedging than re-alignment.”

It is too early to anticipate any outcome of Shringla's visit, but it was undoubtedly an important one that took place amid the pandemic. However, it is not yet clear how the complex triangle relations between Bangladesh, India and China will unfold in the future.

(The writer is an LLM Student in Jagannath University, Dhaka, Bangladesh. The views expressed are personal)