Strategic implications of Bangladesh-China relations

Ruksana Kibria

Since establishing diplomatic relations three decades ago, Bangladesh-China friendship has come a long way, and, despite the radical changes that have occurred during this period in the domestic politics of both the countries as well as in the international arena, the cooperation between them has endured and intensified. China has proved to be a time-tested and reliable partner of Bangladesh, and has extended it economic and military assistance, as well as diplomatic support.

During his visit to Bangladesh in April 2005, the “Year of Friendship,” Premier Wen Jiabao said that China and Bangladesh were committed to establishing “a comprehensive and cooperative partnership of long-term friendship, equality and mutual benefits.” From the Bangladesh side too, it was reiterated in a similar spirit that Premier Wen's visit constituted “a renewal, a revival and a reaffirmation of a time-honoured friendship between the two countries.”

China currently plays a role in the maintenance of Bangladesh's security that no other country does, it being the largest and most important provider of military hardware and training to the latter's armed forces. Apart from that, it also has contributed much for the improvement of Bangladesh's infrastructure, having already funded the construction of 6 'Friendship Bridges'. There is considerable scope for China, a country with an enormous need for energy, to conduct oil and gas exploration in Bangladesh in a manner that would be profitable for both. It's already playing an important role in the mining of coal in the northern part of the country, and has also offered Bangladesh assistance in the peaceful development of nuclear energy. In fact, energy has become a key factor in shaping China's geopolitical and diplomatic strategy in parts of the world with energy resources. During Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's visit to China in 1995, important accords were signed concerning Chinese assistance in the development of gas and energy resources, and management of water resources.

Despite robust trade links between the two countries, there is currently much to be desired in this regard, with a huge trade gap prevailing in China's favour. It does encourage a greater volume of imports from Bangladesh, but it remains up to the latter to take appropriate steps to address this problem. There is also a nagging issue concerning the garments sector where China could turn into Bangladesh's competitor, but given the overall political climate, it is not something that cannot be settled amicably. China has not only shown great interest about making investments in Bangladesh, but is also keen about its investments in China, though Bangladesh is yet to make big strides in this matter. The recently established direct air link between Kunming and Chittagong is another milestone in their bi-lateral relations. Extending port facilities to China would also be valuable since China is at present making efforts to ensure access to naval/port facilities in the Indian Ocean region in order to protect the sea lanes of communication through which a huge volume of oil is expected to flow. In return, Bangladesh could earn economic benefits as well as enhance its strategic value. There is also scope for China to construct a deep-water port in Chittagong that could serve the strategic and commercial interests of both the countries.

While an important aspect of Bangladesh-China relations is economic, it is not the sole basis on which the edifice of bilateral cooperation has been constructed. The fact is that this relationship is primarily politico-military in nature, which derives its significance when studied in the context of Sino-Indian competition in South Asia. What is apparently seen as purely economic and commercial also has profound political and strategic implications for both China and Bangladesh which this article seeks to highlight Before discussing the future prospects of this relationship, a brief survey of China is in order.

China, as is widely known, is an emerging major power, whose GDP is expected to overtake that of the United States by 2025. For the last two decades China has managed to maintain an average annual growth rate of about 9%, which has become not only a source of envy but also apprehension among other countries, particularly Western, where there is a serious concern as to how this economic power would be wielded in the future. China has consistently adopted a diplomatic strategy with two basic goals: to maintain a peaceful environment conducive to its economic development, and to minimise the scope for the United States and its allies to thwart China's rise, and its foreign policy goals. In other words, at present its priority is stability, and avoiding moves that could be perceived as threatening by other major powers. It nevertheless, does seek to restrain the unbridled exercise of American power, but in a muted and non-confrontational manner. The latter, however regards China as a potential adversary, and is therefore exploring ways to subtly contain it, including mobilising India's support to check the increasing Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean area.

This, in broad terms sets the tenor of China's foreign policy goals. In specific terms, it has its own set of strategic interests to promote in South Asia. The principal Chinese goal is to prevent the rise of any peer competitor or rival in Asia, capable of challenging China's role in the Asia-Pacific region. It particularly seeks to keep India's power and influence confined within its borders, and to enhance China's influence in South Asia which India regards as its “near abroad.” In this regard the smaller South Asian countries, including Bangladesh, could play an important role in promoting Chinese interests in the emerging regional order.

As it is, China does regard Bangladesh as having the potentials to facilitate its security interests in the region, it being viewed as the doorway to the volatile Northeast region of India. Bangladesh could play a crucial role in connecting southwestern China with South Asia by a land route. Construction of road links between Bangladesh and China via Myanmar is therefore necessary for fostering closer bonds between them, since that may enable the creation of a China-Myanmar-Bangladesh growth triangle with the potentials to draw Northeast India into its de facto sphere of influence. Such links could also serve military purposes in future. Besides, Bangladesh, along with Myanmar, is also in a position to provide it access to the Bay of Bengal, and through it, the much-coveted access to the Indian Ocean. The question, however, remains as to what extent Bangladesh can accommodate Chinese strategic interests without jeopardizing its own. To answer this vital question, one needs to take into account both short/medium and longer term views.

Currently the Bangladesh-China relations are regarded to be within “acceptable bounds” by both India and the United States, two countries whose security sensitivities in the region Bangladesh is at present not in a position to disregard, since doing so would elicit adverse reactions from both. For the short/medium term, say for the next decade or so, Bangladesh, as a matter of policy would need to reassure that it is not “siding” with China against India, or for that matter, any third country. Under the present circumstances Bangladesh faces considerable geo-political limitations concerning the endorsement of China's security agenda in the region -- nor can Bangladesh overlook these. There are thus compelling reasons for it to act very deftly by balancing all the factors that are involved here, and move in a measured, restrained and non-provocative manner. As it is, the signing in December 2002 (during Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's visit to China), of the Bangladesh-China Defence Cooperation Agreement raised suspicion in India as to its actual scope and intent. The terms of this Agreement have been deliberately left unarticulated, flexible and ambiguous, so as to allow Bangladesh to reap the benefits of a strategic partnership with a nuclear power without involving itself in any formal defence arrangement, which would pose problems for it. Nor would China want any such formal arrangement since that, in turn would create tension in the region, which would be counter-productive for it at this point. The Agreement would nevertheless create uncertainties, and complicate defence planning/calculations in India, and elsewhere. Under the prevailing circumstances, Bangladesh's China policy should be like Goldilock's porridge neither too warm, nor too cool, but just the right temperature. Whether Bangladesh has the capacity and political acumen to pull the trick and produce the rabbit of its strategic interests out of the hat of diplomatic legerdemain is however, another question. A prudent policy for Bangladesh in the short to medium term would be to pursue a slow but steady expansion of military and strategic cooperation with China, thus retaining scope for making adjustments so that the relationship can move in the right direction.

While no dramatic changes are expected in Bangladesh-China relations during this period, in the longer term, that is beyond 2020 (perhaps even earlier), there is likely to be a significantly different scenario. If by then China maintains internal peace and order, national leadership, high economic growth rate, massive inflow of foreign investment and regional stability, it would be in a position to emerge as a major power. Its military power is also expected to grow commensurate with the economic, with a true blue water navy capable of projecting its power in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. In actual terms it would mean that not only the balance of influence be in its favour (which it already enjoys), but the overall balance of power too would be, and thus enabling China to shape the regional security environment and assert its dominance. In that case, it would be problematic for Bangladesh to be reluctant about moving beyond the rhetoric of friendship and avoid the compulsions of a strategic alignment with China, and at the same time benefit from the latter's economic prosperity. It would have to be more attentive to China's political goals, and show deference to its geo-political interests, views and values. Once South Asia comes within China's sphere of influence (and become its backyard), and its strategic dominance is firmly established (with the Bay of Bengal virtually turning into a Chinese lake), India, lagging behind in economic and military terms, is likely to “buy peace” by acquiescing in China's political-economic-military preeminence. It would also become difficult for it to deter Bangladesh from forging closer strategic links with China. The logic of the situation would render China a South Asian power and make its participation in any regional forum, security or otherwise, inevitable. If by then the United States allows its resources to be drained by continuing to prosecute its unproductive, indefinite and costly war on terrorism, its economic power as well as its capacity for leadership may attenuate, resulting in the erosion of US political and military role in the Asia-Pacific. Under such a scenario the American predicament in the region would involve making efforts at challenging China's preeminence in South Asia, and at the same time preventing India from raising questions about the wisdom of toeing the US line at the cost of sacrificing its national interests and improving relations with China. With Bangladesh firmly in the security orbit of China, US ability to contain the latter may become complicated, which is expected to become a much more formidable adversary than the former Soviet Union ever was.

It could therefore be postulated that in the next 15 years or so, Bangladesh and China will hopefully have overcome the existing constraints in their relationship, and have achieved a true strategic and defence partnership, conducive to the establishment of a peaceful and prosperous South Asia. It would be in the interest of Bangladesh to promote China's geo-political goals in South Asia, since a convergence of their strategic interests would augur well for the regional balance of power. At the same time it would be instrumental in redressing the vulnerabilities that Bangladesh faces at present, and facilitate its transformation into a politically, economically and geo-strategically more secure country. For this to occur, Bangladesh needs dynamic, pragmatic and effective political leadership capable of correctly assessing national interests and setting national priorities, identifying the main challenges and creatively engaging them through an appropriate mix of policy tools. It is also necessary to ensure that its foreign policy is informed by a strategic vision as well by economic considerations, that realistically gauges the direction of regional and international changes. The Chinese Premier has affirmed in unequivocal terms that, "Developing a comprehensive and cooperative partnership with Bangladesh is an important component part of China's good-neighbourly policy." It's important for Bangladesh to articulate and sustain a similar policy, since upholding its security and viability as an independent state would necessitate it. The rise of China may be perceived as a threat by some countries, but for Bangladesh it's an opportunity that it can hardly afford to forgo.

The author is Professor, Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka.

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