Before reading this article, you just glance at the landscape of Southeast Asia. Have you seen it carefully? Okay, now hear the ground reality.
China is creeping up fast in Bangladesh. The intensity of China’s interest in Bangladesh suggests that china is interested in more than normal trade. The Chinese eagerness for a strategic presence in Bangladesh is not only related to their export-import profit making and predatory trade, it is actually looking to enter into Bangladesh as the country is the navel point of India. If she could establish her influence in Bangladesh, her grip would be more stronger than ever and India would feel herself vulnerable in all respect.
To do that, for decades, Bangladesh is being allured by Chinese Foreign Direct Investment. Months ago, Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh Li Jiming, in a dialogue titled ‘Bangladesh-China Development Cooperation: Experience and Outlook’, organised by the Center For Policy Dialogue, said, “Chinese investment in Bangladesh is very important for China. We are investing in light to heavy industries and switching investment from low value to value added and mobile and telecommunication. We should consider Chinese investment as a broader vision instead of a narrow vision. We need to join hands to increase political trust.”
This ‘vision’ of the Chinese diplomat is nothing new. On October 14, 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Dhaka with his eagerness to drive new pace of relations between the two. He signed 27 deals, including memorandum of understanding, valued 24 billion US dollar while Chinese and Bangladeshi companies on the sidelines entered 13 joint ventures of 13.6 billion US dollars.
The Chinese President, at that time, said, “We agreed to elevate China-Bangladesh ties from a comprehensive partnership of cooperation to a strategic partnership of cooperation. The two countries announced that 2017 would be the year of exchange and friendship.”
In return, on July 5, 2019, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited China and was warmly received by the Chinese Premier at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing. At the meeting, the Chinese President reiterated consolidating and developing strategic partnership between the two. Moreover, he said that China is ready to exchange education, culture, youth and media with Bangladesh.
During the intensity of the pandemic, in last May, President Xi called Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina over phone and offered an expert team for Bangladesh to help control the virus, which originated in Wuhan, China. In the 25-minute conversation, the Chinese President said, “We will always beside Bangladesh for its economic uplift and also extend support to the country in the international forum.”
In the fiscal year 2019, China has become the largest source of Foreign Direct Investment in Bangladesh. But many experts believe that Bangladesh is entering into a debt trap in the guise of assistance.
The equation, however, is not so strait.
Besides economic activities, China is strongly trying to push its social influence in Bangladesh. To have a cultural bridge, Chinese cultural programmes are taking place in Dhaka. To entertain the Bangladeshi audience, the Chinese are playing Tagore’s play and expressing closelesness by attending local cultural activities.
There are dozens of Chinese language schools and institutions in Dhaka under different universities, including the Confucius Institute under Dhaka University. China is trying to regroup pro-Chinese politicians in Bangladesh. On the other hand, Bangladeshi students are being inducted in Chinese universities for higher education.
Now the question is why the Chinese are toiling to reach out to the Bangladeshis?
Traditionally, China is Pakistan’s closest ally. During the Liberation War in 1971, China was one of the few countries which strongly supported Pakistan’s cause.
After the independence of Bangladesh, China did not recognise her. Not only China supported Pakistan during the war, it also vetoed Bangladesh’s UN member status in 1974.
Like Pakistan, China recognised Bangladesh after the brutal killing of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of the country. China and Bangladesh established diplomatic relations in 1976. After the killing of Sheikh Mujib, General Ziaur Rahman eventually emerged as the most powerful man of the country.
This military man started searching for anti-liberation, anti-Indian and pro-Chinese men to have a strong platform. After becoming President of the country, Ziaur Rahman visited China for closer relations and the Chinese leaders started to visit Bangladesh as well.
He was followed by another military ruler, Husain Muhammad Ershad, who copied Zia’s policy almost in all the sectors. Zia and his political party BNP decided to capitalise on anti-India sentiments and minimise the gap between Bangladesh and China.
Later, when Zia’s widow Khaleda Zia came to power, she followed her husband’s path. During her second-term, from 2001 to 2006, China-Bangladesh relations reached a new height.
In 2002, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was warmly received in Bangladesh as the countries signed nine bilateral agreements. Seeing the body language of the relations, many Bangladeshis satirically uttered that another Zia has appeared, as the Chinese Premier’s last name sounded ‘Jia’. Anyway, both the countries at that time declared 2005 as the ‘Bangladesh-China Friendship Year’.
In 2002, China and Bangladesh signed a defence cooperation agreement, which covers military training and defence production. BNP is the main political rival of Awami League, the present ruling party. BNP has been trying to establish pro-Pakistani policy in Bangladesh and both BNP and Pakistan had always been Chinese picks.
So, China knew the discontent of the Awami League. That is why they are trying to appease the Sheikh Hasina government as best as they can. It is also unfortunate that Bangladesh is now a major buyer of Chinese weapons.
The relation between two countries is always appreciable. But the way the Chinese are trying to get in is highly risky for Bangladesh politics. China eyes The Belt and Road Initiative to be fully successful. To do that, China sees Bangladesh as a very important country. But once the Chinese goal is achieved, it will work for the BNP and pro-Pakistani forces. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina should keep this in mind. We can humbly suggest her not to forget the past and not to forget that the China influx is not serene.
(Mohshin Habib is a senior journalist based in Dhaka. The views expressed are personal)