Foreign Policy Blogs

How China is pushing Bangladesh away from India

After the skirmish along the Indian-Chinese border that killed 20 Indian soldiers, many Indian commentators are presently concerned that China is increasingly trying to push New Delhi’s allies away from India and towards them.  For example, the Hindu reported that these commentators described the zero-tariff agreement for 97% of the exports between Bangladesh and China as “charity” for a “least developed” country, a critique that caused an uproar among Bangladeshi officials.  

Although there was a diplomatic cost to such remarks, it appears that India has a good reason to be concerned.  Siegfried O Wolf, director of research at the South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF), a Brussels-based think-tank, told DW: “China has a port facility [Hambantota] in Sri Lanka, they have Gwadar [in Pakistan], they are building a port facility in Myanmar [Kyaukpyu] – this gives India the feeling of being surrounded by China. This is the military dimension of Indian concern.”

He also cautioned that China might use investments to gain political influence: “So there is a threat for India that China might influence the government of Bangladesh.”  According to him, this threat may have an economic dimension: “We have seen China driving out other countries from the market. For instance, it has become very difficult for French and German companies to get contracts in African countries.”

Already, Bangladesh has increasingly been gravitating away from India and towards China.  In recent years, Bangladesh, who joined the Belt and Road Initiative that India refuses to take part in, have received $31 billion in investments from China.  In 2015, China became Bangladesh’s top trade partner, thus replacing a position that India had occupied for years.   And now, China is offering coronavirus aid to Bangladesh and there is a sister city agreement, where six Bangladeshi cities will be sister cities of cities within China. 

Shipan Kumer Basu, who heads the World Hindu Struggle Committee, added that in light of the coronavirus pandemic: “China has offered to invest around $24 billion in Bangladesh, which is among the highest level of assistance promised to a country under BRI. A large portion of the committed assistance will be in the form of credit.  BRI is criticized, basically for the debt burden and the exploitation by China that a country faces if they fail to repay the debt. The case of Sri Lanka, another South Asian country, which had to give a portion of its land on lease to China after failing to repay the loan, is well known.”  However, he noted that Bangladesh hopes that they won’t share Sri Lanka’s fate.

“Notably, Bangladesh and China today enjoy a warm and friendly relationship and have formed a strategic partnership,” he added.  “The two countries share a close military and economic relationship. However, the difference in culture between the two countries is considered a lacuna in this relationship. For bridging this gap, China is persistently enhancing its public diplomacy to foster people-to-people connectivity through measures like — encouraging educational and cultural exchanges, organizing visits of media and political parties’ delegations, establishing Chinese language institutes, organizing interaction among the trade bodies, think tanks and many other activities.  China’s public outreach has paid a dividend in forming a favorable public opinion in support of the relationship. In Bangladesh, rarely any negative sentiment about China is voiced in public. Despite the presence of trade imbalance with China, the issue is hardly highlighted and recognized as a problem in the bilateral relations between the two countries.”

However, some members of the international community (like the Sheikh Hasina government) have not been positively viewing China’s massive investment projects and the Belt and Road Initiative.  As Chinese firms seek to build the Tel Aviv light rail, JPOST reported that Chinese involvement in major infrastructure projects in the Jewish state is causing some US officials to question the continued strong American support for the Jewish state, including related to annexing 30 percent of the West Bank under Trump’s peace deal.  US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo proclaimed: “The Chinese strong arms nations to do business with Huawei, an arm of the CCP’s surveillance state.  And it’s flagrantly attacking European sovereignty by buying up ports and critical infrastructure, from Piraeus to Valencia.  Every investment from a Chinese state-owned enterprise should be viewed with suspicion.” 

Nevertheless, the Chinese government has tried to allay these concerns.  Wan Tiunji, who heads up the Chinese Cultural Center in Tel Aviv, proclaimed: “The Belt and Road Initiative is a Chinese government policy seeking to connect Asia and Europe.”   He claimed that other nations benefit from China’s cultural centers and other projects that China advances in the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative.   However, even if this is true, an article in JPOST noted that in 2013, China utilized the fact that they construct much infrastructure in Israel in order to condition Netanyahu’s stopping defense officials from testifying in a New York federal lawsuit against the Bank of China for laundering Iranian money to Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.   A report from RAND warns that China has close ties with Iran and that “the Chinese government might require Chinese companies doing business in Israel to share insights with the Iranian government in order to win friends and influence in Tehran.”  

As much as China may pose a threat to Israel, given the asymmetrical power relations between Bangladesh and China, Basu thinks that his country needs to be even more cautious than the Jewish state: “Bangladesh needs to holistically analyze the ramifications of the Chinese proposals. The principle of equidistance, which has been the guiding principle of Bangladesh’s foreign policy, will be hampered and it will impact its relationship with other powers. Maintaining autonomy in foreign policy is crucial for sustaining peace and stability in South Asia.” 

He also warned that China does not have a positive history when it comes to respecting the human rights of Muslims within their borders: “The Bangladeshi people should know that Muslims in China are in re-education centers.  They are studying a new Chinese version of the Quran.  China has persecuted millions of Uyghur Muslims.  They hold them captive.  But the Muslims of Bangladesh do not raise their voices against China.  The people of Bangladesh will soon learn what is in store for them.”  For this reason, he is greatly disturbed by the rebuke that various Bangladeshi officials recently gave to India and their strengthening of ties with Beijing.   

 

Author

Rachel Avraham
Rachel Avraham

Rachel Avraham is a political analyst working at the Safadi Center for International Diplomacy, Research, Public Relations and Human Rights. For 7 years, she has been an Israel-based journalist, specializing in radical Islam, abuses of human rights and minority rights, counter-terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Syria, Iran, Kurdistan and other issues of importance. Avraham is the author of “Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings in the American, Israeli and Arab Media," a ground-breaking book endorsed by Former Israel Consul General Yitzchak Ben Gad and Israeli Communications Minister Ayoob Kara that discusses how the media exploits the life stories of Palestinian female terrorists in order to justify wanton acts of violence. Avraham has an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Ben-Gurion University. She received her BA in Government and Politics with minors in Jewish Studies and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Maryland at College Park.

Great Decisions Discussion group