Is Bangladesh the Newest Addition to China’s ‘String of Pearls’?
There has been a subtle shift in Narendra Modi’s attitude towards Bangladesh. Although in his pre-election rallies Modi had threatened to drive out the Bangladeshi infiltrators, his foreign minister Sushma Swaraj hardly mentioned the topic during her recently concluded visit to Bangladesh. The reason is very simple. China is now spreading its influence in Bangladesh very fast and India does not want to lose the confidence of Hasina Wazaed, the prime minister of Bangladesh, who is always looked upon in New Delhi as a traditional ally.
Yet there are reasons for India to be apprehensive about Dhaka’s future course of action. Mandarins in India’s ministry of external affairs confirm that Hasina Wazed’s visit to China in June this year has raised many eyebrows among Indian policy makers. Hasina not only signed a number of agreements with China – some of them being militarily uncomfortable for India – but the tenor of her speech during meetings with Chinese political bigwigs as well as her official press briefing after coming back to Dhaka also raised skepticism. To her, Sino-Bangladesh relations are not only a matter of a closer comprehensive relationship of cooperation, but a dynamic process which has metamorphosed from the stage of economic partnership into the realm of strategic partnership.
But rather than establishing an independent identity for Bangladesh in South Asian politics, this fundamental change in perception – away from an India-centric foreign and internal policy long cherished by Hasina Wazed’s party, the Awami League – is likely to entangle Dhaka in the vortex of troubled South Asian waters. Hasina’s grudge with New Delhi lies in the fact that the previous Manmohan Singh-led UPA government failed to deliver to Bangladesh the quantum of waters from the river Teesta. There are some other minor issues like the settling of the land boundary between the two countries, which has been stalled due to opposition from several state governments and regional parties of India. But the Teesta issue has been rankling in the minds of the prime minister of Bangladesh and her talk of strategic partnership with China assumes significance in this context.
It is true that Hasina Wazed has reason to be dissatisfied with India. She cooperated with New Delhi so far as tackling the insurgency in northeastern India, handed over to India several dreaded terrorists who had taken shelter in Bangladesh and expected, in return, that India would accede to her request of enhanced water flow from the river Teesta. That India could not live up to Bangladesh’s expectation was entirely due to the folly of India’s former National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon, who failed to convince Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, an Indian state through which the river Teesta passes before entering Bangladesh.
Clearly Hasina Wazed is now trying to capitalize on the geopolitical advantage that Bangladesh enjoys as a country which overlooks the strategically important sea lanes of the Indian Ocean linking China with the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, thus playing a role in securing energy supplies for Beijing. In her first press conference in Dhaka after returning from China, Hasina Wazed said that she is prepared to forget the past in the interest of economic benefits for her country, a clear allusion to China’s hostile attitude during Bangladesh’s liberation war in 1971 and her willingness to forge closer ties with China.
But for Bangladesh, doing business with China will have its own connotations. As strategic experts believe, Beijing has its own theory of ‘string of pearls,’ meaning bases by which China can encircle India in South Asian politics. It has already targeted Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka, and if Hasina is now prepared to forget everything in the past then China would have another very important addition to its kitty.
Among all the Chinese footprints in Bangladesh, the most contentious ones are the Chittagong port and the proposal to build a deep-sea port in the Sonadia Island off Cox Bazar. Chiittagong port is now being developed and modernized with Chinese investment and help. Although detailed agreement over this project has been kept under wraps, it is widely believed that China will retain the right to use this port according to its plans and needs. Strategically more important will be the deep-sea port at Sonadia which will also come up in a similar manner i.e. with Chinese investment and direct participation. It will provide China with an excellent base to monitor and control situations in the shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean. In addition to the Gwadar port in Pakistan, control over these two ports in Bangladesh will not only be very important feathers in China’s ‘string of pearls’ cap, they will also greatly reduce the distance of sea connections for China’s remote western and northwestern parts. While the distance from Kunming (China) to Chittagong is 1000 kilometers, the distance between the former and Guangzhou, the nearest sea port in China, is 1700 kilometers.
Bangladesh has plans to build up an air force base in the Sonadia Island. It’s a bit baffling. Engaging India in an air duel is out of question for Bangladesh. It had a long standing maritime dispute with Burma, but this dispute as well as the Rohingya influx from Burma to Bangladesh never took such a proportion so as to merit military confrontations between the two countries. Moreover, with the pronouncement of a judgment from an international tribunal on Indo-Bangladesh maritime relations having a bearing on Burma too, the maritime dispute is now on its way to a solution. Then why has Bangladesh been contemplating the construction of this air base? Is it for giving China a back-up support?
Beneath the apparent camaraderie between New Delhi and Dhaka, an air of mistrust is there. Even Hasina Wazed has now drifted far away from his father Sheikh Mjibur Rahaman’s policy of total reliance on India. In her last visit to Beijing she has signed an agreement by which China would not only support the Bangladesh military but would provide training facilities for army personnel. For the last five years China has been the largest arms supplier to Bangladesh. Beijing now exports arms to nearly 35 countries and of them Bangladesh is the second-biggest importer.
Silent moves are now taking place here to redraw the strategic balance. Immediately after coming back from Beijing in June, Hasina Wazed declared that the Bangladesh navy would get two Chinese submarines by 2015 and the Chinese ambassador in Dhaka averred that these submarines would help Bangladesh in bringing stability in the region. Dhaka would spend $203 million to purchase these two boats. In March this year, Bangladesh has commissioned two new Chinese frigates and between 2008 and 2012 it bought anti-ship missiles, tanks, and fighter aircraft from China.
Bangladesh’s silent acquisition of arms has surprised the Indian government. In recent times it has acquired helicopters from France, aircraft from Germany, light helicopters from Italy, and armored personnel carriers from Russia. Its navy has recently test-fired automated missiles. It is a fact that in the international arms market, Chinese arms are a bit cheaper. Moreover, as Beijing is in possession of a very big hard currency reserve it can provide credit and soft loans. In 2012 alone, Bangladesh purchased $350 million worth of Chinese arms.
India’s response is marked with caution. It has expressed doubts about the necessity of Bangladesh signing so many pacts with China. But militarily speaking, India has also been keeping its powder dry. It has already decided to build a deep sea port at Sagar Island, on the mouth of the Bay of Bengal and quite near to not only the coastline of Bangladesh but its mainland too. There are plans to set up a missile base on the island wherefrom land-to-ship and surface-to-air missiles could be launched.
There are reasons for India to be uncomfortable with the fact that while Chinese weaponry accounts for 54 percent of total Pakistani arms purchases, the corresponding figure for Bangladesh is 82 percent. Russia recently edged out China in matters of partnership in the construction of Bangladesh’s first nuclear power plant at Rooppur in the Pabna district. But long before that, in 2005 China roped in Bangladesh in the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization along with Pakistan, Iran, Thailand, Indonesia, Turkey, etc. Beijing is now Dhaka’s largest trade partner. On the other hand, Bangladesh is China’s third-largest trade partner in South Asia.
Some Indian strategic experts have ascribed Bangladesh’s pro-China tilt to India’s failure to deliver Teesta waters. But it has to be noted that Bangladesh started entering into more and more agreements with China since 2010, before the Teesta controversy cropped up. They include Chinese financial help to Bangladesh’s first space satellite program, a highway connecting Bangladesh with Kunming in China through Burma, and a 128-kilometer railway line to connect Gundum, a border town of Bangladesh, first with the Burmese, and then with the Chinese systems.
In her latest tour to China, Hasina Wazed gave a boost to the growing Beijing-Dhaka nexus. The agreements signed during her visit cover infrastructure, roads, railways, a coal-based power plant at Patuakhali, and a Chinese economic and investment zone in Chittagong. But strategically, the most important agreement has been in regard to construction of a dual gauge railway line from Chittagong to Cox Bazar wherefrom the proposed deep sea port at Sonadia will not be far away.
Amitava Mukherjee is a contributor to Geopoliticalmonitor.com