Bangladesh has to balance its relations with both India and China

by Barrister Harun ur Rashid | November 4, 2013 3:26 am

The series of geopolitical developments in the Asia-Pacific region taking place all at once is certainly overwhelming: We live in an era of change due to the ongoing power shift and power diffusion.

Currently we live in a non-polar world and the balance of power is going through an evolution period. For example, recent Obama administration’s policy towards Iran and Syria is considered as “soft” by Saudi Arabia and other Arab States and they are not happy with the US, a long-time ally;. Russia and Japan agreed to expand defence ties in the context of China’s increasing military powers.

Bangladesh’s geographic location:

Bangladesh is a nation of strategic importance not only to South Asian region but to the larger geo-political dynamics of Asia as a whole.

Bangladesh is ideally located in a region which has assumed importance for India, China and US. Bangladesh shares borders with India and reformist Myanmar and is a near neighbour to China, Nepal and Bhutan. Bangladesh is a physical conduit between South and South East Asia. It can link up with roads to China’s Kunming through Myanmar and the proposal is being proposed by China to Myanmar.

In concrete terms, it means, if foreign investors build manufacturing industries in Bangladesh, the products can be distributed in South, South East Asia and China. To make Bangladesh a hub of economic activities, interconnectivity within the regions and with China through Myanmar Bangladesh has been keen to see that it is implemented sooner.

In the proposed New Silk-Road/ Economic Corridor linking Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, India, Myanmar and China, Bangladesh is an integral component of that interconnectivity. The pivotal reasoning behind the New Silk Road is that economic incentives will reinforce close political cooperation and long-term stabilization.

Bangladesh’s access to the Indian Ocean through the Bay of Bengal is strategically and commercial important. All exports and imports are carried by ships through the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean and the sea lanes are protected by naval powers of India, US, China and other powers which regularly monitor the security of the Indian Ocean.

Bangladesh in cooperation with the major naval powers is on the process of addressing non-military maritime threats, such as piracy, gun -running, drug and human trafficking, maritime oil spills and natural disasters.

Relations with India & China:

All these factors make it absolutely necessary for Bangladesh to main friendly and cooperative relations with both India and China which are both “giants” in Asia.

It is wrong to suggest that Bangladesh has to choose between India and China. It is desirable that Bangladesh would not commit to friendly relations with one country as a way to antagonise another and the relations must be delicately balanced between the two nations, which are often found to be difficult to maintain.

Bangladesh appreciates that both Asian countries are “rising” as global powers and because of this the 21st century has been designated as “Asian century”. At the same time apprehension emanates from stresses when Bangladesh is not sure of its position in the new geopolitical environment

The “India factor” looms large in Bangladesh foreign policy as .the country is surrounded by west, east and north by India, and on the south- east it shares border (only 271 kilometre on land and river) with Myanmar.

Bangladesh-India relations are complex, sensitive and multi-dimensional. The relationship is not restricted to only between governments but exists between peoples of the two countries independently of the policies of the governments because the ties of history and culture of the two countries are so pervasive and from ancient days.

The relations between people of Bangladesh and those of China are rooted in history. During the 4th century Chinese travelers Fa-hien and in 7th century Hue-an tsung visited the territory, now Bangladesh.

The cultural interaction between China and Bangladesh dates back to centuries. A Buddhist monk from Bangladesh named Atish Dipankar, traveled to China in the 11th century and preached Buddhism there for 17 years. He died in modern day Chinese Tibet and the Chinese Government has returned his ashes to his place of birth, Bajrajogini, in Munshiganj district as a mark of friendship between the two countries.

Relationship with China has become one of the priorities of Bangladesh successive governments. The heads of government of Bangladesh, irrespective of their political affiliations, invariably visited China and met with Chinese leaders to strengthen relations in every possible sector.

China has assisted the country, among others, in infrastructure, roads, bridges, power including hydro-power, coal mine, industrial plants, telecommunications, flood control, disaster prevention, river training, irrigation and water resources utilisation.

Over the past few years, China has replaced India as Bangladesh’s biggest import destination with bilateral trade between the two nations as of 2010-11 standing at US$7 billion , though heavily skewed in favour of Beijing.. Bangladesh’s exports to China stood at $406 million as of 2010-2011.

China may build underground oil pipelines from Bangladesh through Myanmar and use it for the supply of oil to Kunming for south eastern provinces and central provinces of China. The route would be much shorter and less expensive.

Another trade route between the two countries is through Nepal as China has been constructing rai link between Nepal and Tibet. The railway line reach Nepal’s border town Khasa, only 80 kilometres from Kathmandu from Lhasa., capital of Tibet. The railway network will be important for increasing bilateral trade.

Balanced relationships:

Having said that, since 2009, observers say although the Hasina government in Bangladesh has attempted to maintain the balance its relations with India and China, critics say it has skewed overwhelmingly its relations in favour of India and many Chinese initiatives or proposals were put in the back burner lest they annoy India, one such instance is the construction of the deep sea port near Cox’s Bazar with proposed Chinese assistance.

Enhanced and balanced relationship with India, Myanmar and China gives Bangladesh many advantages. It can be argued that greater engagement with China would augment Bangladesh’s negotiating strength with India. The region’s leadership may recognise that Bangladesh may be able to help in the complex strategic evolution taking place in the region.

Some analysts say Bangladesh is swinging on a tightrope in which India held one end and China held another. Not willing to place all its eggs in either basket given its past history with both nations, and in an effort integrate into the global economy, Bangladesh is pursuing a foreign policy of what some analysts label “more friends, fewer enemies.”

Concluding remarks:

Stable economic and strategic partnership with both India and China are desirable for Bangladesh. Bangladesh has also placed an emphasis on global integration which has resulted in political and economic engagement with a wider range of countries, the purpose which is to make the country hub of economic activities. 60% Bangladesh trade is currently connected with global trade.

Lord Palmerston’s dictum is correct when he has said that there are no eternal friends or permanent enemies. What is eternal is national interest and those are to be pursued vigorously. National interest is not static but is variable. It may change with the change of settings, themes and arenas.

Although national interests are variable, certain minimal notion of national interest exists. Besides preservation of sovereignty and territorial integrity and peaceful relations with all countries, food security, water security, economic security, energy security, environmental preservation and internal peace and cohesion are the important elements of national interest.

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