China vs. India: Battleground Bangladesh?

Will China’s “economic” benefits outweigh India’s “blood ties” as the two countries seek greater influence over Bangladesh?

China vs. India: Battleground Bangladesh?
Dhaka, Bangladesh. Portraits of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the Chinese President Xi Jinping on Dhaka's main streets during Jinping's visit in October 2016. Photo: Alamy Stock Photo.

When China offered Bangladesh duty free access to its markets this June, several Indian newspapers jeered. “Khoyraati” (charity), they wrote. Sensitivities were clearly running high. A week before a border brawl between the Chinese and Indian armies had left 20 Indian soldiers dead. Bangladeshis, however, did not take kindly to being used as a punching bag to soothe wounded Indian egos. Abul Kalam Abdul Momen, Bangladesh’s foreign minister, added to a furore on social media, calling one Indian newspaper’s language “narrow-minded” and “totally unacceptable.”

Sinophiles are few and far between in Bangladesh, but nothing prompts a wave of ardour for China in the country more than a dose of condescension from India.

The government in Dhaka is normally a master of playing all sides, but as anti-Indian sentiment grows and China steps up its overtures, this balancing act is becoming harder.

Bangladesh and India go way back. India’s military might and money helped Bangladesh, then impoverished East Pakistan, win its freedom from West Pakistan in 1971. And since then India continued to have a close relationship with the Awami League. Bangladesh’s self-proclaimed big brother also lent a hand in the Awami League’s election victory in 2008 — and the two more controversial elections since then — securing the loyalty of Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the party’s leader and the country’s prime minister.

Today, however, the memories of 1971 are losing their rosy tint. Ordinary Bangladeshis have grown weary with kow-towing. Since 2008, Bangladesh’s economy has soared — faster than India’s. In terms of many development indicators Bangladesh has outstripped India. But Bangladesh remains the browbeaten little brother in the relationship. India still takes the lion’s share in trade deals — the deficit is $7.35bn — as well as controlling the flow of rivers that run between the two countries. This rankles Bangladeshis, many of whom feel, as a result, their farmland is swamped in the rainy season and arid in the dry months. The sporadic killings of Bangladeshis at the Indian border and a ruckus about onion imports add to the long list of perceived injustices. India’s highly partisan role in recent elections in favour of the Awami League has also raised the hackles of those who support opposition parties.

Bangladeshis, 90% of whom are Muslim, have also watched aghast as the government of India has unrolled a series of discriminatory measures against their co-religionists. Even the usually obsequious Sheikh Hasina has been forced to openly criticise her biggest foreign backer in the face of rising Hindu nationalism. Months after ordering the mainly Muslim nationals of Assam, an Indian state bordering Bangladesh, to register in order to prove their right to citizenship, the Indian government passed an act fast-tracking Indian naturalisation for non-Muslim migrants, including those from Bangladesh. “We don’t understand why [the Indian government] did it. It was not necessary,” Sheikh Hasina told Gulf News, an Emirati newspaper, as her ministers cancelled trips to India.

Rising anti-Indian sentiment puts pressure on the prime minister and her government to reconfigure Dhaka’s relationship with Delhi. The Covid-19 pandemic, which has hammered Bangladesh’s economy, adds another, perhaps greater, impetus for Bangladesh to lean eastwards.

Now more than any other time during Sheikh Hasina’s ten-year tenure, Bangladesh is in need of cash. When this comes from Western benefactors and international funds, it comes with conditions. In 2013, Bangladesh rejected a $1.2bn loan from the World Bank to finance a bridge spanning the vast Padma river, after the bank started investigating accusations of corruption and setting terms the government of Bangladesh did not like the look of. China stepped in instead.

China is a less scrupulous business partner, as well as a very generous one. In 2016, on a visit to Dhaka, Xi Jinping, China’s president, welcomed Bangladesh into the Belt and Road initiative by promising more than $20bn on 27 infrastructure projects, bringing total Chinese investment in Bangladesh to more than $38bn.

Already Bangladesh’s largest investor, China coughs up the money for the big infrastructure projects that Sheikh Hasina’s government loves. They bring her not only a rubber stamp of development but also domestic popularity. As well as the Padma bridge, China is bankrolling — either directly or through Chinese companies — railways lines, power plants and industrial parks as well as upgrading Bangladesh’s largest port, in Chittagong.

China’s charm is also not only economic. Big bags of gold and friendship bridges — China has built seven in Bangladesh — are increasingly coupled with subtler forms of persuasion. For the last few years, the Chinese government has been hotly courting the Bangladeshi press, whisking journalists to China on educational visits. It has also drawn in Bangladeshi students, large numbers of whom now study in China, many on scholarships. Covid-19 has offered another wooing opportunity. China has promised Bangladesh early access to any vaccine developed, for example.

This charm offensive may explain why, while India bashing is de rigueur, Bangladesh’s press and people remain mostly tight-lipped about China’s wrongdoings. These abound. China’s treatment of its Muslim Uighur population makes India’s anti-Muslim moves seem small fry. Equally, Bangladesh’s trade deficit with China is far greater than that with India (India gave Bangladesh duty free access to markets a decade ago). China also sides against Bangladesh on the issue of the Rohingya, an oppressed minority from Myanmar, a million of whom fled to Bangladesh in 2017 and have not yet been able to return home.

As smooth an operator as China may be, the willingness of most Bangladeshis to overlook all this is just as likely to be because of what China is not as what it is. Namely, China is not India. China does not, visibly at least, interfere in Bangladeshi politics, nor does the rhetoric of its media and politicians so overtly condescend, belittle or bully.

Bangladesh’s government is unlikely to turn its back on its oldest friend anytime soon. A wariness of following other South Asian countries down the Chinese debt hole tempers enthusiasm for Chinese money. Geography — Bangladesh is surrounded on three sides by India — plays in Delhi’s favour too. As does history: Bangladesh’s ties with China are “economic”, but with India it is tied by “blood’, said Momen, the foreign minister. Familiarity breeds contempt, however, as India would do well to remember.●

Susannah Savage is a journalist covering Bangladesh — she writes for The Economist, The Telegraph, the Financial Times and other publications.

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