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Thursday, December 27, 2012
OP-ED

Security dimensions of Bay of Bengal and Sino-Bangla cooperation

Bangladesh and China are both maritime countries from ancient days. They both enjoyed best maritime relations. It was during the Ming dynasty about 600 years ago, when Emperor Yong Le reigned, that the most famous voyager and navigator of that time Admiral Zheng He, the envoy of peace, sailed the Indian and Pacific Oceans and created the Chinese maritime Silk Road. Between 1405 and 1433, Admiral Zheng He's fleet of more than 100 ships on seven transoceanic expeditions visited 30 Asian and African countries. His fleet visited the port city of Chittagong twice. Sultan Giasuddin Azam Shah, the Sultan of Bengal, received the Admiral from China in his capital at Sonargaon. The Sultan also reciprocated by sending valuable gifts to the Ming King, including one long necked giraffe, which is, according to Chinese tradition, a symbol of divine fortune, Since ancient times it has been only China, though mighty both on land and sea, which never colonised any country, never occupied others' land, showed utmost respect for countries' sovereignty and believed in non- interference in others' internal affairs.

Bangladesh and China started diplomatic relations in 1975. It was Ziaur Rahman who looked to the East and initiated it. Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai were alive at that time. Our diplomatic relations have remained excellent and have stood the test of time. It is a role model of bilateral relationship between two countries with different political ideologies and social and cultural systems. Bilateral relations encompassed all sectors of our national lives and international aspects. China supported us in developing our economy, building our economic infrastructures, developing our trade and commerce, agriculture, industries and also defence.

The geo-strategic, geo-political, and geo-economic position of Bangladesh has made it a pivot of the regional strategy, nay a significant place in world strategy. Bangladesh is a bridge between South Asia and South East Asia. It stands between two Asian giants, India with its regional ambitions and peaceful and friendly China, the world's second largest economy.

The geo-strategic importance of Bangladesh is enhanced by its location along the Bay of Bengal, which is a linking factor among the countries situated along it. The trade link along the Bay of Bengal stretches from China in the east to West Asia and Africa in the west. The Bay of Bengal stretches to all the sea lanes of the region, connecting the important Malacca Straits and Taiwan Straits, and extends to South China Sea, East China Sea and the Pacific.

One of the stakeholders in the Bay of Bengal is India, which considers it a strategic maritime space for its political and diplomatic initiative towards Asean. The US has appeared as a major stakeholder, and considers that the pivot of its world strategy is the Asia-Pacific region. It has decided to place 60% of its naval strength in the Pacific.

China is a soft power and believes in peaceful coexistence. It believes in peace and pursues peace, and its phenomenal rise in recent decades has been achieved through peace. It is deeply concerned about its maritime security and has accordingly prioritised its naval build up.

In China-Bangladesh relations defence is the key link. In 2002 a defence cooperation agreement was signed when Prime Minister Khaleda Zia visited China. It is an umbrella agreement covering wide-ranging defence cooperation in military hardware supply, transfer of technology, joint venture defence projects, military training, joint operations, development of logistic lines, anti terrorism, disaster management and other possible areas. We need to modernise and strengthen our armed forces, and make it up to date so that it can be the bulwark of our national sovereignty and independence. We seek under the said defence agreement China's support and cooperation to secure our maritime sovereignty, including security of exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and extended continental shelf, and protect our sea resources including valuable hydrocarbons under the sea bed. To this end in view, we seek China's support to build a 3 dimensional navy with fleets of combat surface ships, cluster of under-water submarines and navy's own integrated air support wing.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasian visited China in 2010, which was reciprocated by Vice President Xi Jingping in the same year. Xi is now the supreme leader of China. In their bilateral talks defence remained high in the agenda. During the visit of BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia to China last October, CPC Secretary General Xi Jingping assured China's full cooperation.

Bangladesh seeks connectivity with China. We need our sea connectivity to develop and strengthen by building a deep-sea port off Chittagong with China's assistance. We seek direct connectivity by road and rail from Chittagong to Kunming to connect the two cities and the two countries via Myanmar. This will mark the reincarnation of the ancient southern Silk Road, opening up cooperation in trade and commerce, economy, industry and also national security.

I was invited to China by PLA in 1996 when I was the Chief of Army Staff. During that visit I had the privilege to meet with His Excellency Jiang Zemin, the President of China. President Jiang told me: "China has changed a lot. It is not the same China which you saw when you lived here in the '70s and '80s. It is a modern China, developed China and it is a new generation, a new leadership.” He also said: "The world is changing. I heard Dhaka skyline has also changed. But in all these changes one thing has not changed, and it will never change, and that is our relationship with Bangladesh, our policy for Bangladesh." He said: "I assure you General, China will ever remain a friend. In times of need it will be always beside you. The relationship between China and Bangladesh is of friendship, friendship and friendship and nothing but friendship." His words still ring in my ear. I treasure them. I believe this epitomises our common national ethos, it epitomises our two countries' true relationship. It epitomises the spirit of our true friendship in the 21st century and beyond.

The writer is a former Chief of Army Staff.

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China has changed, have we?

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