Close on the heels of her visit to India, Bangladesh Prime Minister Shaikh Hasina visited China. Hasina’s visit needs to be seen in the context of past attempts by Bangladesh to use China as a counter-balance against India. However, a fundamental difference this time around was the fact that the Hasina government, which came to power in the 2008 elections, is widely perceived as India-friendly. Thus, it is of interest to see what approach this friendly government takes towards China whose growing presence in South Asia has been a cause of discomfort to India.
The significance of China can be gauged from the fact that whether to visit China or India first has been a dilemma faced by every Bangladeshi prime minister. Hasina knew that a visit first to India would give a chance to her detractors to say that she is following a pro-India policy, irrespective of the visit’s agenda. The more vociferous ones would even blame her of a sell out, which they eventually did.
A lot of euphoria was created in both India and Bangladesh after Shaikh Hasina’s India visit in January 2010. This was not without reason. There were path breaking elements in the joint communiqué and in the agreements signed. Bangladesh’s cooperation on counter-terrorism was especially noteworthy. But it is also true that the growing strength of jihadist forces in Bangladesh had created problems for the Awami League itself with many of its leaders becoming victims of jihadist activities. Hasina herself had faced several attacks on her life and she barely survived one of them. Clearly, cooperation on counter-terrorism was equally important for both India and Bangladesh. Still Shaikh Hasina should be congratulated for her cooperation on counter-terrorism and progressive thinking. Her conviction to take a line different from that of her predecessor is admirable.
Progress was also made on the issue of transit, euphemistically referred to as connectivity. Bangladesh agreed to allow the use of Mongla and Chittagong sea ports for movement of goods to and from India by road and rail. It also conveyed its intention to provide Nepal and Bhutan access to these two ports. It was also agreed that the Akhaura-Agartala railway link would be constructed and that it would be financed with a grant from India.
But India’s enthusiasm has dampened after Hasina’s visit to China, principally because similar transit facilities have been granted to China as well. Bangladesh has sought Chinese assistance in constructing a highway passing through Myanmar to Yunnan province of China. A rail network passing through the same area has also been proposed. And Bangladesh went out of the way to persuade China to further develop and use the Chittagong port and develop a deep sea port at Sonadia Island. A Chinese role in the development of Chittagong is particularly worrisome to India, since it would be similar to China’s involvement in the development of Hambantota in southern Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Baluchistan. China reportedly has access to the Myanmar naval base in Hanggyi Island and has established a monitoring station at Coco Island, north of India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Through these ports, China is trying to fulfil two objectives – encircle India as part of its ‘string of pearls’, and gain other openings to sea.
While Bangladesh says that it is trying to establish an equal relationship between India and China, it is clearly trying to benefit by leveraging its geo-strategic position between Asia’s two rising powers. This may be a happy situation for Bangladesh and even for China. But India would not benefit in equal measure. In fact, a Chinese presence in Chittagong would present a major security concern for India.
All major powers – Russia, United States and China – consider certain areas as their backyard. Russia vociferously protested when Americans tried to increase their influence in Central Asia. Similarly, the Chinese watch closely any western move in Southeast Asia and East Asia. China is especially sensitive to any US activity in Taiwan and Taiwan straits. Similarly, few would deny that South Asia is India’s backyard. How effectively India manages to keep its influence in this region would determine its future security preparedness.
Bangladesh has been trying to extract a bargain from both India and China to its own advantage. But everything that is advantageous for Bangladesh is not necessarily so for India. The road link and port facility which Bangladesh is offering to China may reduce Chinese dependence on the Malacca Straits. But a Chinese presence in Chittagong will endanger long term Indian security interests. China is a major supplier of defence hardware for Bangladesh. In 2008, Bangladesh set up a missile launch pad near Chittagong Port with assistance from China. These developments are too serious to ignore.
Bangladesh’s decision to allow China use of the Chittagong port may pose a major security dilemma for India. It is very difficult to assess the extent to which Chinese engagement with Bangladesh is innocuous and when it would start infringing on important security interests of India. If the growth of Islamic extremism and terrorism in Bangladesh is a threat to Indian security, then the presence of powers with which India’s interests have the potential to clash is also of security concern. It is from this perspective that the recent trends in Bangladesh-China relations need to be assessed.