Vol. 5 Num 350 Mon. May 23, 2005  

Sino-Bangla relations and Bangladesh's Look East policy

Bangladesh and China are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the establishment of China-Bangladesh diplomatic relations. China has always been an important factor in Bangladesh's foreign relations. In present times, Bangladesh is adopting a Look East policy as an important characteristic of its foreign policy. A core segment of that policy is Sino-Bangla relations, considering China's present economic strength and political influence. China may also be well aware of Bangladesh's geo-political importance and market potentialities. Exchange of high profile visits between Bangladesh and China shows both countries' seriousness to strengthen Sino-Bangla bilateral relations.

Early stage
China was against Bangladesh's liberation war. In fact, up to August 1975, there were no official relations between the two countries. However, the hidden cause lay in Bangladesh's relations with India and the former USSR, India-USSR relations, Pakistan-China relations, and the China-Pakistan-US axis.

At the time of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's regime in Bangladesh, China exercised its veto power while Bangladesh was trying to get UN membership. Though China did not agree to give formal recognition to Bangladesh during Mujib's regime, it stopped opposing Bangladesh's membership to the United Nations after a treaty signed between Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India on April 28, 1974.

After the overthrow of the Mujib government, China officially recognised Bangladesh on August 31, 1975. It officially established diplomatic relations with Bangladesh on October 4, 1975. Since then, the bilateral relations between the two countries have been growing very rapidly. At the time, a tense relationship with India has caused Bangladesh to tilt towards China. Starting from Ziaur Rahman's regime, all governments of Bangladesh have contributed positively to strengthen Sino-Bangla relations.

PM's China visit of 2002
The present BNP-led four party coalition government of Bangladesh has adopted a Look East policy to explore and use the potentialities of eastern countries for Bangladesh. By virtue of that, Bangladesh has emphasised stronger Sino-Bangla relations. To open new dimensions of cooperation between Bangladesh and China, the present prime minister of Bangladesh, Begum Khaleda Zia, visited China from December 23-27, 2002. It was very significant for various reasons. The Bangladesh premier met with almost all the main government officials and party leaders of China during her visit. At the time, three treaties and an MoU were signed on military cooperation, economy, and technology between the two countries. China promised to give additional 110 million yuan (Chinese currency) with previously sanctioned 50 million yuan interest free loan for building the 6th Bangladesh-China friendship bridge on the Dholessori river. Of this, 60 million is grant and the rest is interest-free loan. It is very encouraging that five bridges exist in Bangladesh as a symbol of Bangladesh-China friendship. In addition, China declared $24 million as grants for Bangladesh which it previously gave as interest-free loan to build an international conference centre at Dhaka. Now the centre is treated as a gift of the Chinese government. A treaty has been signed to establish Bangladesh-China joint venture ceramic and tannery industries. China will also provide support for Bangladesh's agriculture and tourism sectors. During Khaleda's visit to China, some initiatives were taken to reduce the trade deficit which is in favour of China. In 2002, Bangladesh's import trade with China was worth $64.2 million, while the export trade was worth $19 million. Now the deficit is over $500 million. During Khaleda's visit, Bangladesh requested China to allow duty-free entry of 34 Bangladeshi items to China as a part of the Bangkok accord.

Moreover, official talks were held between the two sides on sub-regional cooperation. The proposed cooperation includes regions like Yunnan province of China, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, and the North-Eastern states of India. Asian Highway may be a regulator for this economic and commercial exchange. The initiative is termed as the "Kunming Initiative" because Kunming of Yunnan province is the centre point of the Chinese proposal. Kunming-Dhaka direct air flight is a part of the proposed initiative. A meeting was held on this initiative on February 6-7, 2002, and China, India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh were the participants. China wants to make a common economic grid circling Myanmar, Thailand, and the Eastern states of India using its Yunnan province.

Bangladesh expressed its support to "One China Policy" of China during Khaleda's visit. At that time an agreement on defense cooperation was signed between the two countries which was termed as "Umbrella Agreement" by foreign minister of Bangladesh M. Morshed Khan. China is the supplier of most of the military equipment of Bangladesh. From the very beginning of its diplomatic relations with Bangladesh, China provides significant support for Bangladesh's military. Higher training for Bangladesh army and arms supply are among the support. But there were no agreements on defense cooperation. The signed treaty is a strengthening effort compared to the previous MoUs signed for defense cooperation. This is not a defense and security agreement. But undoubtedly it is significant for a small state like Bangladesh.

Wen Jiabao's Bangladesh visit of 2005
Chinese premier Wen Jiabao was in Bangladesh on an official visit on April 7-8, 2005. After a summit with the Bangladesh side, led by the PM, and attended by other important ministers and officials, nine accords -- five agreements, two MoUs, a contract and an exchange of letter -- were signed. The Chinese premier readily agreed to constructing the Di-Aluminium Phosphate (DAP) fertilizer factory in Chittagong entirely on concessional lending instead of on supplier's credit. Both sides agreed to make preferential duty arrangements to boost the import and export of commodities between the two countries. China recognised the imbalance in trade with Bangladesh, and pledged to take active steps to increase imports from Bangladesh. The Chinese premier even said that his government would give subsidy to Chinese business people to increase the import of Bangladeshi goods under a package of measures. Under a signed accord, China will give $6 million to Bangladesh for capacity building of civil servants. Moreover, the Chinese side also agreed to increase scholarships for Bangladeshi students. China will also help Bangladesh make peaceful use of nuclear energy. Foreign Minister M. Morshed Khan said Bangladesh will go for peaceful use of nuclear energy in power generation, medicine, and other development purposes under an agreement just signed with China. Both countries signed the Bangladesh-China Cooperation Agreement on Peaceful Usage of Nuclear Energy. To make Bangladesh's position clear to all, Hemayetuddin, the foreign secretary of Bangladesh, said: "There is nothing military or related to weapons in this agreement." China will also cooperate in the development of the tourism sector of Bangladesh and will make Bangladesh an approved tourist destination for Chinese citizens. Both the countries agreed to the opening of direct air link between Beijing and Dhaka via Kunming. During Wen Jiabao's visit, Bangladesh again expressed its support for the One-China policy.

Chinese potentialities and cooperation possibilities
China's rise as an economic power and its potentialitiesmake it a leader in the developing world. From 1979 to 1997, China's average annual growth rate was 9.8 percent, 6.5 percentage points higher than that of the rest of the world. After the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US, the world was suffering from an economic depression. Even at that time China was able to maintain a considerable economic growth. Up to 2001, China's position was the sixth in the world, according to the average production. Among the developing countries, this position was second. If it grows in this way it will be the greatest economic power in terms of purchasing capacity by 2020. Strong economic and commercial relations with such a potential superpower will eventually help Bangladesh strengthen its own economy. Moreover, the positive thing is that the Chinese side is also interested to develop close ties with Bangladesh. China has a great market interest in Bangladesh. However, China's strategic interest in Bangladesh is magnified with market potentials. Other than commodity trade, China is also involved in infrastructural development of Bangladesh. It is providing support for manufacturing, mining, fertilizer factories, building roads and bridges, etc.

China has expertise in sectors like telecommunication, information technology, textile and RMG, foodstuff, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals which may be useful for Bangladesh in terms of cost effectiveness through joint cooperation and investment. But Bangladesh should be careful for its own RMG sector. Because in a quota-free world, China is one of the competitors of Bangladesh. But there is also a chance for cooperation. Now Bangladesh imports a good quantity of fabrics for its RMG sectors from India. As China has sufficient expertise in producing fabrics, Bangladesh should encourage Chinese investment in Bangladesh in this sector. Joint investment in this sector may also meet Bangladesh's needs. It will be profitable for both countries. For Bangladesh, this kind of cooperation may help to secure its market competency in the age of globalisation.

Bangladesh is a potential country for tourism. Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar which is an attractive tourist spot and famous for the world's longest sea beach is very near to Yunnan province of China. One can easily reach Dhaka from Kunming of Yunnan province of China within one and a half hours by air. Both the countries have agreed to start direct air link between Dhaka and Kunming in the shortest possible time. During the Chinese premiere Wen Jiabao's Bangladesh visit, a good move was made for Bangladesh's tourism sector, making Bangladesh a tourist destination for Chinese citizens. So after staring the Dhaka-Kunming direct air link a new dimension of tourism will open for both the countries. Not only will the Chinese get an opportunity to visit tourist spots of Bangladesh like Cox's Bazar sea beach, Chittagong Hill Tracts, Potenga sea beach, etc., but also the Bangladeshis will get the privilege to visit the land of "eternal spring" and also see mountains and glaciers and ancient forests in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces of China. Moreover, if the two countries can build Kunming-Chittagong road link, it will definitely help to boost trade and tourism for both.

However, it may be fruitful for Bangladesh if it can make a Bangladesh-Myanmar-China tri-nation economic grid. Like Bangladesh, Myanmar also has a strong relation with China. And from past few years Bangladesh-Myanmar economic relation is increasing significantly. So a tri-nation economic cooperation is possible.

In the age of globalisation, economic diplomacy may be the key tool for almost every country's foreign policy. All countries are tilting towards bilateral and multilateral economic cooperation and economic pacts. Regional organisations are working as a useful tool for organising cooperation among the regional countries. Unfortunately, in South Asia, Saarc is not working properly due to some internal problems of its member states. Saarc's failure may be a reason behind adopting Bangladesh's Look East policy.

Another reason is to reduce dependency on India. As a neighbour, Bangladesh has had some bad experiences with India's hegemonic attitude on various bilateral issues like border problems, water sharing problems, etc. Moreover, India does not seem serious about reducing its trade imbalance with Bangladesh. The bilateral trade deficit has now exceeded over $1 billion. China may be a good option for Bangladesh to reduce dependency on India, and it seems more serious than India about reducing our bilateral trade deficit.

However, Bangladesh should always be watchful of Sino-Indo relations. Recently China and India have been inching towards cooperation and have signed an accord setting out "guiding principles" to resolve their border disputes. They have also agreed on economic cooperation. Reviewing the trend and transformation of regional politics, Bangladesh should follow a balanced foreign policy. It cannot afford to displace one to make the other happy. While implementing the Look East policy, it should maintain good relations with India as well.

Dr. Kazi Ihtesham teaches History at Jahangirnagar University and

Mohammad Mahabubur Rahman is a researcher in International Relations.