By Sheikh Rahman
Chinese Ambassador Li Jiming recently sought to warn a prospective alliance partner in Bangladesh not to join the Quad, adding that Bangladesh would “substantially damage” its relationship with China by joining the alliance aimed at countering China’s expansion in the Southern Asian region.
The ambassador’s remarks were then sharply criticized by the Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abdul Momen as being presumptuous since the Quad had not yet approached the government, stating moreover that the decision to join or not is entirely a sovereign issue. Momen expressed extreme dissatisfaction over the perceived “interference” from the Chinese ambassador, terming the statement “aggressive” and “regretful.” According to the minister, the nation’s foreign policy adheres to the principles of non-alignment and maintains a “balanced” approach that’s independent of any external influence or pressure.
Washington has surely taken note of the Bangladeshi foreign minister’s response to China’s ‘warning’ on the Quad as an act of assertiveness regarding the sovereign nation’s right to decide its (own) foreign policy. For its part, China Foreign Office spokesperson Hua Chunying denied the alleged interference, pointing out that a “clique” under the guise of the Quad is “sowing the seeds of discord” between regional states and China. Chunying went on to characterize the Quad as an organization bent upon maligning the rise of China; and one that practices “hegemonism.”
In a subsequent meeting with the secretary of the ministry of foreign affairs, however, Ambassador Li Jiming suggested that the comment was a response to a question and a personal opinion, misconstrued by the media, rather than a position of the Chinese government.
The Indian media described the response of the Bangladesh government as a “curt refusal” to Beijing’s plea to a key partner within the strategically positioned Indian Ocean littoral.
However, in one article published by the Daily Star, former ambassador Humayun Kabir points out that the mere suggestion of a Chinese diplomat does not constitute “interference,” as perceived by the local media and government officials in Dhaka.
Although this matter may be dismissed as a diplomatic faux pas, several questions have been raised by opposing sides that deserves an introspective review.
Bangladesh remained non-committal in responding to expressions of interest from both China and the United States seeking to establish some kind of defense-security partnership. In prioritizing issues of national security and foreign policy, the Chinese leaders seem to focus first on economic interests followed by security aspects; compared to the Americans who put security and strategic interests ahead of any economic and investment prospects. In contrast, recent foreign policy practice of Bangladesh puts top priority on economic growth in its discussions with external powers, often ignoring any attempts at forging security or defense partnerships. Conclusively, this begs the question – will any of the regional or global powers be willing to come to Bangladesh’s aid in the event of a crisis, absent any such security commitments?
Bangladesh seems to have been caught up in the US-China rivalry in the South Asia/Indian Ocean region. Specifically, this contest seems to be over controlling access to the Bay of Bengal and projecting sphere(s) of influence through the Indo-Pacific region.
Prudent policy makers and strategic analysts cannot rule out the possibility of a potential conflict breaking out in the event of an intrusion into the vicinity of Bay of Bengal by naval powers competing for strategic space. The probability of such an outbreak of hostilities between opposing naval powers in the Bay of Bengal has worsened lately due to ongoing political instability in neighboring Myanmar.
It’s thus possible that the turmoil next door could eventually spill over into the territory of Bangladesh. As noted by the Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres, and reaffirmed by the Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abdul Momen, the presence of more than a million Rohingya in refugee camps in the coastal town of Cox’s Bazar can be a source of destabilizing influence upon regional security.
Wei Fenghe, China’s defense minister, held meetings with the Bangladesh President Abdul Hamid and the chief of army on April 27, in which Wei expressed a keen desire to “jointly maintain regional peace and stability” and jointly thwart the “alliances and hegemonic influences of external powers.”
What strategic interest are in play for China? As Tuneer Mukherjee argues in The Diplomat, “The Indian Ocean and its surrounding waters are home to China’s principal shipping lanes, and there is a need to guard its economic and energy security against an adversarial power seeking to infringe on Chinese access to these waters. China has, therefore, embarked on an agenda to actualize a commercial support base in the [Indian Ocean region], which could later be leveraged militarily.” Another BBC report on China’s “string of pearls” strategy in the Indian Ocean Region concludes that “large-scale aid for Chittagong port development represents Beijing’s attempt to realize some special purposes.”
Beijing denies any such linkages in its involvement in the development of the Chittagong port. However, the example of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port would suggest otherwise.
Wider geopolitical implications surrounding the development of the Chittagong port cannot be totally ruled out since the location of the Bay of Bengal is extremely desirable for advancing China’s strategic interests. Beijing had previously pushed the Bangladesh government to go ahead with the deep seaport project at Sonadia, hoping to gain a footprint in the Bay of Bengal. Objections from Delhi convinced the government to drop the project during the visit of the prime minister to Beijing in March of 2014, causing big disappointment for the Chinese leadership.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao signed a deal with the visiting Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in March of 2014 for an estimated $8.7 billion dollar investment to develop the Chittagong port. Plans to transform the Patenga port into a regional hub had been designed to cater to shipping demand in Bangladesh, the northeastern states of India, and access for Chinese commercial and naval vessels to the Bay of Bengal.
Sino-Bangladesh collaboration on the port development project paved the way for the subsequent funding of mega-infrastructure and energy projects, and extending the Belt and Road Initiative into Bangladesh. China is now in a position to exert leverage upon the debtor nation, and at a convenient juncture can convert the commercial purpose of the port development into dual-use since the contracts potentially allow the lenders to influence debtors’ domestic and foreign policies.
A recent review of 100 debt contracts with foreign governments published in AIDDATA’s study entitled How China Lends describes the terms that typically link foreign policy to aid. Foreign aid is often used by developed nations to influence the behavior of the recipient-nations. And as the largest official creditor in the world, China has adopted even more stringent terms and conditions, according to the study.
China is wary of Western democracies working against its economic expansion and establishment of security and strategic partnerships in the littorals of the Indian Ocean. China has to contend with its chief rival India, the dominant power in the region, while operating in India’s backyard. It also has to countervail against the intrusive powers of the United States and its alliance partners (the Quad) in the Indian Ocean region.
What appears to be a strategic move on the part of the defense minister in actuality likely stems from an apprehension over this “bulwark against China” that’s being organized by the US-led Quadrilateral Defense Dialogue. Vigorous campaigns by the US Secretary of State to build an anti-China coalition of democracies, by strengthening security ties and emphasizing military-to-military cooperation with Indo-Pacific nations, have heightened overall tensions in the region. Recent military agreements signed by the United States with India and the Maldives; and, the Malabar exercises of the Quad accentuated the sense of threat emanating from China’s strategic expansion into the Indian Ocean region.
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) is an evolving informal organization of the United States, Australia, Japan, and India focused on regional security of the Indo-Pacific region. Primary objectives of the Quad are the creation of a rule-based international order and a free and open Indo-Pacific.
In the wake of the US-Chinese competition to win allies in the Indo-Pacific region and a gradual shift of strategic focus toward the littorals of the Indian Ocean – Bangladesh gained eminence in the eyes of these global and the regional powers.
As the US-China strategic competition assumed a military dimension on both sides of the equation, the urgency to elevate the strategic partnership with Bangladesh into a military-to-military alliance seemed to be the way forward for the Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe. China’s longstanding friendship with Bangladesh – dating back to the signing of the umbrella defense cooperation agreement in December of 2002, followed by the upgrading of the defense pact to a strategic partnership by President Xi during the visit to Dhaka in 2016 – provided sufficient confidence to attempt to take the relationship to the next level.
China is also Bangladesh’s largest trading partner, with two-way trade expected to reach $18 billion by 2021. The majority of the country’s defense purchases (nearly 65%) originate from China, with total procurement of $2.85 billion over the last two decades (2000-2019). The Bangladesh Navy also purchased two Ming class submarines from China.
BRI funds pledged for the development of energy, transportation, and infrastructure are estimated at $24 billion and, potentially, scale up to $42 billion when all loans, grants, technical assistance, and investments in joint-ventures are taken into account. BRI funds played a critical role in the maintenance of the upward movement of the nation on its growth trajectory.
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