Covid-19 has become a great crisis for Bangladesh as well as the whole subcontinent. Along with that, regional politics is appearing as another threat in this region. Recently India has been in visible conflict with both China and Pakistan. Bangladesh being the greatest ally of India as well as having China as one of its greatest development partners is apparently going through a dilemma. During this COVID-19 scenario, the main concern of Bangladesh seems to be holding up its economy, which was on a fast-growing roll prior to the crisis. Hence, to serve on this goal, regional stability is most desired and Bangladesh needs to play its part in a matured way.
While India shares its borders with seven countries it shares the largest, a 4,096-km-long, border with Bangladesh which touches Assam, Tripura, Mizoram, Meghalaya and West Bengal. Its second largest border is with China which stands at 4,056 km long. It also shares a total of 3,323 km border with Pakistan.
India had prominent border tensions with both China and Pakistan on several occasions. It had tensions at Bangladeshi line also but those never became hostile. With current developments and considering all the facts, both Bangladesh-India and Bangladesh-China relations might be challenged in the upcoming days and sound diplomatic approach will be required from Bangladesh’s part to keep developing during this pandemic period.
Conventional wisdom says great power rivalry makes smaller neighbors vulnerable. This might be true in the case of Bangladesh also. In addition to Bangladesh’s critical geographical location on the contested Indian Ocean, it is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and with 160 million people, the eighth most populous country in the world. The size of the population, which signifies the size of the market, helps overshadow the small territorial size of this country.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina with her bold leadership, in the last decade, has established Bangladesh as a role model of development and the country became eligible to graduate to developing country status by 2024. Hence, development in terms of infrastructure, defense, human resource and economy should persist as a dominant national priority for Bangladesh in the coming decades.
Bangladesh has been a loyal friend to India over the years despite having some strong disputes on few issues. Their relation is not actually based on the terms of benefits rather a lot more emotional. India has strong trade relations with Bangladesh but has not invested much for the infrastructural or industrial development of Bangladesh yet. Despite that, friendship between the two countries is noteworthy.
On the other hand, China’s economic engagement with South Asian countries, except its long-time partner Pakistan, only began to ramp up in the last two decades. In this short period of time, China has emerged as a top trade partner for Bangladesh. In 2015, China became Bangladesh’s top trading partner, knocking India out of the position it had held for 40 years. Imports from China represent 34 per cent of Bangladesh’s total.
Moreover, as a member of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Bangladesh has seen an influx of Chinese investment in recent times. Beijing’s support of Bangladesh was evident in the 27 agreements for investments and loans signed by the two countries, worth some $24 billion, when President Xi Jinping visited in 2016. Along with an earlier $13.6 billion investment in joint ventures, those deals brought Chinese investment in Bangladesh to a total of $38 billion, the largest sum ever pledged to Bangladesh by a single country. In response, India announced $5 billion in loans for Bangladesh in 2017, which is the largest amount ever invested by India in Bangladesh.
As a rapidly developing economy Bangladesh is in need of investment. While China and India both see investment in Bangladesh as a way to extend their influence, the development of Bangladesh is supported by the contribution of both China and India.
There is also a strong security dimension to these relationships. Bangladesh is surrounded by India on three sides, and their shared 4096-kilometer land border is the fifth-longest in the world. The Bay of Bengal, located to the south of Bangladesh, is a frontier that is watched over by the comparatively powerful Indian Navy. Bangladesh also has a maritime dispute with India in the strategic Bay of Bengal.
China has become Bangladesh’s top source for arms imports; and Dhaka likewise is China’s second-largest arms export destination in the world, following Pakistan. Bangladesh accounts for 20 per cent of all Chinese arms sales. This arms trade with so many benefits offered to Bangladesh by China raised concern for India. Again, while China and India seek to expand their influence in the Bay of Bengal, they are trying to improve the military powers of Bangladesh also.
If the China-India strategic rivalry intensifies, both countries will double down on their approach to bring strategically important Bangladesh into their own circle. China might use its trade benefits while India will focus on diplomatic and cultural ties.
In a bid to encourage Bangladesh, China has provided a huge trade boost to the country by announcing tariff exemption for 97 per cent of Bangladeshi products effective from July 1 recently. The decision has come one month after Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Chinese President Xi Jinping held a discussion to upgrade their bilateral relations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Indian media has criticized this move of China, who is currently in intense relation with India, by demeaning Bangladesh, raising rage among its people. Our government should be aware of such acts as several groups will try to destroy the peaceful relationships with both India and China.
Bangladesh is rattled with the Rohingya issue and neither India nor China put pressure on Myanmar for repatriation of these Rohingya refugees till now. Moreover, recently Myanmar government declared a possible search for rebels in its Rakhine state and thousands of Rohingyas are fleeing their homes and obviously will head for Bangladesh, their most humanitarian friend, to escalate problems for Bangladesh. During this period Bangladesh should opt for support from India to settle this issue as the friendship of Bangladesh and India will remain hopefully undaunted.
Moreover, water management dispute is present for a long time with India over several rivers including Brahmaputra and Teesta. As Bangladesh remains at low-stream terrain, India’s water management policy affects the lives of millions here. To strengthen the friendship India should resolute these disputes. Though Indian central government tried to resolve the Teesta problem several times, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee did not let that happen.
Other than that, Bangladesh can look for solutions of few border disputes remaining with India as well as can opt for eliminating the negative impacts of current and future nationalistic drives of India. PM Hasina declared and ensured that there is no activity, threatening to its neighbours, even Myanmar. Especially in terms of controlling cross-border terrorism, Bangladesh’s works are exemplary and highly contributing towards the regional peace. India enjoys a peaceful 4,096 km border with Bangladesh and India should also always act to protect this friendship.
We must not offset the contribution of China in terms of economic development of Bangladesh. During this COVID-19, China has stood strong beside Bangladesh and we need their support to regain our economic strength during the post-pandemic time. The sub-continent along with China is prone to natural disasters and boosting the economy amid COVID-19 and possible threats of natural disasters remains a challenge. Moreover, both China and India are becoming one of the greatest economic powers of the world while Bangladesh is developing fast. Without communal harmony and regional stability, it will not be possible to continue that journey for long. Hence, this should be the greatest priority of Bangladesh, India and China.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is well-known for her farsighted leadership and persistence for regional peace. We hope she will signify Bangladesh’s role in restoring regional peace. However, to avoid being a passive victim of this geopolitical reality, Bangladesh should use its strategic approach tactfully as regional stability and the national development should be the only priority. Maintaining good relations with both India and China is crucial for Bangladesh and dynamic approach will be required for that in the upcoming future.
The writer is Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA), Editor at Kishore Bangla and Vice-Chairman, Democracy Research Center