How do the dimensions of China’s interests in Dhaka pan out in relation to Indian concerns? What are the issues which India needs to resolve with Bangladesh? What steps can Delhi take to balance China’s influence and thus enhance India-Bangladesh ties?
The sinews of the Sino-shadow
While India played a pivotal role in the independence of Bangladesh, it now witnesses a shift in the priority given to its ties by its Eastern neighbour. Dhaka desires good relations with India but fears the shadow of its western Big Brother. Hence Bangladesh has welcomed China to be one of its most vital partners in the decades since 1971. The matrix of Beijing-Dhaka relations permeates multiple avenues, ranging from strategic to commercial, from energy security to infrastructural. Of these the strategic ties are one of the most salient.
China has helped to build Bangladesh’s military capabilities since 2002. Delhi has been alarmed at Beijing being Bangladesh’s main provider for military hardware. Naval defence is being given particular attention. India is most concerned about the sale of two Ming-Class submarines in 2014, as they may enter Indian waters. In addition, Bangladesh set up a missile launch pad near Chittagong Port with assistance from China in 2008. These developments make it clear that Bangladesh fears perceived Indian hegemony. However, Sheikh Hasina has reassured Delhi that her state will not be a base for anti-Indian manoeuvres. Such traditional military threats do not exist, but there are non-traditional threats towards India. These include terrorist outfits operating from Bangladeshi soil. This is one reason for which Bangladesh is keen to have strong military alliance with China, apart from counter-insurgency cooperation with India. It helps maintain the small state’s internal security. It also addresses China’s call for peace in Bangladesh for smooth development. Besides, a strong military setup adds a perception of stability in the eyes of international community which is observing constant political turmoil in Bangladesh. In Beijing’s and Dhaka’s view, such perceptions will help prevent hegemonic tendencies from great powers such as India and the US.
China also aids Dhaka’s military modernisation to help contain the former’s once-staunch ally in Myanmar. A strong military at the border will help check the large refugee influx from Myanmar. Myanmar’s land and maritime border disputes with Bangladesh cause friction not only for political reasons. Energy security is a key driving factor – Bangladesh has discovered enormous energy reserves in its waters, which penetrate the disputed territory. Beijing is thus an important source for Dhaka’s maritime security in context of Myanmar. China too eyes Bangladesh’s oil and gas reserves of 15.51 trillion cubic feet. The incentive for harnessing these reserves has prompted China to go beyond providing the defence component to contain the dispute. China has also mediated between Bangladesh and Myanmar. The negotiation was successful in preventing Naypyitaw from exploring for oil in disputed waters. On the other hand India is avoiding engaging in constant high-level defence ties with Bangladesh. This reserved approach is to prevent confronting China as well as to pacify Myanmar. Myanmar is undergoing political and economic transformation and a democratic India does not want to upset the improving relations with Naypyitaw.
Nevertheless, China is pushing ahead with its strategic and commercial forays in Bangladesh at full speed. Chinese ventures into infrastructure building and port development are aimed at consolidating Beijing’s vision for a maritime corridor extending from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean via the Bay of Bengal. This corridor will help resolve the Malacca Dilemma by ensuring lesser reliance on the narrow Malacca Straits which see transit of 80 percent of China’s oil supplies. In this context China is helping to develop the Chittagong port along the coast of Bangladesh. It is significant that Chittagong is in proximity to Kyaukphyu, a Myanmar port from where an oil pipeline is being built to Kunming. If an oil pipeline is built from Chittagong, it can be parallel to the Myanmar energy transit route originating from Kyaukphyu and Sittwe, thus expanding a valuable energy corridor for China. Bangladesh too desires enhanced infrastructure. Dhaka has sought Chinese assistance in constructing a highway passing through Myanmar to Yunnan province of China. A rail network passing through the same area has also been proposed.
Dhaka has displayed diplomatic tact to allay India’s concerns over Chinese involvement. Sheikh Hasina had asked India to also contribute to the development of Chittagong port in 2010. Significantly, she also welcomed Delhi to develop the port at Sonadia Island near Cox’s Bazar. This island is an important air force base for Bangladesh. Interestingly, China is already involved in the Sonadia port development project. It indicates that Bangladesh fears both Chinese and Indian influence. It hence seeks to counterbalance either country’s ambitions to ensure equilibrium in its foreign policy. On a similar note, Bangladesh is unlikely to allow China to setup naval bases at its ports in order to maintain good relations with India.
However India remains second to China as Bangladesh’s largest bilateral trading partner. Beijing has also inked a nuclear cooperation agreement with Dhaka in 2005. In addition China has crossed the space frontier with Bangladesh by engaging in talks to launch a satellite for the small state. While China and Bangladesh share several points of strategic convergence, there does remain one irritant – the Brahmaputra river issue.
China’s construction of dams on the Brahmaputra river in Tibet, or the Yarlung Zangbo river in Chinese, could cause India’s Northeast and Bangladesh to face acute water shortage. The first project, the Zangmu Dam has already been operational since 2014. In addition, China’s announcement in 2013 of its plans to construct three hydropower dams – Dagu, Jiacha, and Jiexy along the middle reaches of the Brahmaputra basin, has raged anxiety in India and Bangladesh in terms of erosion, flood protective measures, and the potential ecological damage to the downstream regions. There are also fears that the Brahmaputra may be used as a political tool in Chinese foreign policy, via a stronger say in water sharing discussions. Also, rapid development of infrastructure in the Northeast could create social tensions with local tribes. That must be avoided to prevent China instigating Arunachal Pradesh locals to agitate against India. Despite the consequences, India was seen to take a cautious stance while Bangladesh proposed a three party meeting with China to discuss the issue. The small state would be greatly impacted by Chinese activities on the Brahmaputra, as it supplies 75 percent of the water to Bangladeshi rivers. However, China has assured India that there would be no implications downstream. While this statement has not smoothened India’s ruffled feathers, Delhi has to deal with several other issues while maintaining ties with Bangladesh.
Illuminating the Bangladesh-Big Brother relationship
The Chinese shadow over Bangladesh may have made the Indian Central government persuade West Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to break the ice with Prime Minister Hasina over the Teesta river water sharing issue on her recent visit to Dhaka. Her assurances for the same, along with promises that the Land Boundary Agreement between India and Bangladesh would be taken up in the Indian Parliament, signify a breakthrough in Delhi-Dhaka relations. It will help solve the trust deficit with Bangladesh. Bangladesh feels this lag in its relationship with India, as it has not hesitated to cooperate with the Big Brother in many spheres, but has seen no returns on the Teesta issue till recently. These areas of cooperation include internal monitoring and curtailing of terrorist activity that could be directed at India and handing over Northeast Indian insurgents operating out of Bangladesh.
Bangladesh plays an important role in the development of connectivity of North East India (NEI). There is a stereotype that better connectivity in this region will lead to easy access for the Chinese army. Therefore development remains pending in NEI. However Tripura has requested the Indian government to allow multimodal transport connectivity between Bangladesh and the landlocked NEI region. Ashuganj has been zeroed in as a potential port of call. Tripura’s desire to have the waterways access through Bangladesh, in fact, is a demand voiced by the entire Northeastern region. India must heed this demand to garner a two pronged advantage – equitable development across NEI and enhanced relations with Bangladesh.
Equitable development in the region cannot be achieved without acknowledging that the low India-Bangladesh investment quandary must be resolved. India can engage the NEI region by participating in the Bangladesh-Myanmar-Kunming connectivity project. This will aid progress in the sub- regional Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Forum.
The light on the horizon of the Delhi-Dhaka duet
It is hence observed that progress needs to be made on several fronts to improve India-Bangladesh relations. China’s military matrix with Dhaka is a source of immediate concern. China’s quest for energy security can point India to upgrade its own capabilities in oil exploration and excavation in order to enter into energy pacts with Bangladesh. India can follow the Chinese initiative to engage in nuclear and space cooperation with Bangladesh. The Brahmaputra river issue can be approached through dialogue to address all parties’ concerns. This must be tandem with India’s recent overtures in forwarding the Teesta water sharing talks. Similarly, anti-smuggling efforts are a subject that needs timely attention. All these advancements cannot be made without taking the NEI region into account in India’s Bangladesh strategy.
With regard to the strategic sphere, India must realise that Bangladesh has genuine concerns which propel its relations with China. Delhi too can acknowledge these concerns and address them by providing the support a developing country like Bangladesh needs. Significantly, Dhaka seems to have realised it needs to be wary of a China whose military modernisation and rapid growth can overcast an indelible shadow over Bangladesh. Hence Bangladesh is now engaging in defence cooperation with India. India already has joint air force exercises with Bangladesh. This can be elevated by engaging in the proposed increase in defence trade. The two countries can also engage in military exercises at the air force base at Sonadia Island. It will help balance China’s domination in the naval realm. Trilateral defence cooperation with Bangladesh and Myanmar will help to allay the latter’s fears.
Another potential area for cooperation is assisting in Bangladesh’s infrastructure development, especially to maintain international safety standards in factories. It will directly contribute to highlighting Bangladesh’s position on the textile industry map. This in turn will help to solve Bangladesh’s trade deficit with India.
Significantly, several of the Chinese development projects were begun with Bangladesh’s request. It shows that Dhaka prefers Chinese involvement over India’s, as the former apparently delivers its targets on time. India must hence rejuvenate the proactive approach, albeit in a peaceful atmosphere, to achieve both Delhi’s and Dhaka’s interests. It is commendable that some initiatives have been taken, such as India planning to get BHEL to bid for a Bangladeshi power project. The opportunity to develop Sonadia Island must not be lost, as it will add a valuable foothold to India’s maritime interests in the Bay of Bengal.
India must look beyond bilateral cooperation with Bangladesh. It can consider the strong Japan-Bangladesh ties while consolidating ties. A Chennai-Dhaka-Tokyo Triangle can reap hefty rewards in the maritime, commercial and strategic domains. For maximum benefits, India can also engage in joint development of projects with China in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh is a crucial part of India’s Act East Policy. Besides, neglecting the Bangla state can give room to China to exercise monopoly in the strategic and commercial arenas. It is time to relaunch India-Bangladesh ties in a new avatar and culminate them in strong diplomatic, strategic and trade relations. These ventures must be carried out in an environment that acknowledges multipolarity in South Asia. Hence India and China can rise as complementary partners in the Asian Century.
Asma Masood is a Research Officer at the Chennai Centre for China Studies (CCCS). Her areas of interest are China, South Asia and dynamics of foreign policy. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or in Twitter: @asmamasood11. The article was first published in CCCS website.