Monday, December 05, 2016

Sino-Bangladesh Entente: A Looming Concern for India?

Srimanti Sarkar

(Srimanti is a Research Scholar at the Department of Political Science, University of Calcutta, and can be reached at

Bangladesh today is fast emerging as a vibrant economy with significant advancements taking place especially in its development sector. It has a huge labour force, a potential market, and a very significant geo-strategic location in between the three major economies, viz. India, Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia. This has attracted countries around the world and especially in the region, including China, to take keen interest in Bangladesh. China also has been regarded as a plausible regional partner and a “time-tested, all-weather” friend by Bangladesh with whom bilateral relationship has been clear of the contingencies of changing political regimes. Likewise, China even considers a well-developed Bangladesh an “asset” for her with a potential to prosper as a vibrant economy.  The growing Sino-Bangladesh synergy should be understood in light of the major cooperative measures undertaken in sectors like trade, investment and infrastructural development, defence, energy, culture and environment between the two countries.
But, whether China’s increasing clout in Bangladesh is seemingly an ‘entente’ having major socio-economic and geo-strategic implications is a matter to carefully ponder upon. While China strives to realise, it’s so called, “Chinese Dream”[1]—it will be judicious to assess whether Sino-Bangladesh interests converge to affect India’s position in a negative way. The following section will try to appraise whether Sino-Bangladesh ties pose an immediate and impending threat upon India.

The fast normalisation and affirmative conditioning of the Sino-Bangladesh bilateral relations though seem to be a natural upshot of regionalism; when looked from a security perspective hints a critical geo-strategic concern for India. Bangladesh’s growing closeness with China is, more than often, seen as a tactic by the former to counter balance India out of, what Keohane’s conceptualises as, the ‘Lilliputians’ Dilemma’. It implies that small states primarily adopts three broad policies while acting alone vis-a-vis big states—viz. a  passive  strategy  of  renunciation,  an  active  strategy  designed  to  alter  the  external  environment  in  their  favour  (e.g.,  subversion), or a defensive strategy helping them to preserve the status quo (e.g., traditional diplomacy, deterrence)—in order to cope with their high (and rising) costs of independence. Although Bangladesh cannot be literally categorised as a ‘small’ state in terms of its geographical size and population, it is perceptively a ‘small power’ compared to both India and China. Accordingly, Bangladesh seems to adopt the third strategy of maintaining a status quo with regard to India—as pursuing a passive strategy of renunciation will be impractical given her unavoidable dependence on India (which almost entirely surrounds Bangladesh from all the three sides), and altering India’s pre-dominance in the region is literally not feasible (which by virtue of her sheer size and huge repository of all kinds of resources is the largest power in South Asia)—while fostering closer ties with China in an attempt to diversify her over dependence on India. But, Bangladesh seems to be a geo-strategically significant country for China as well, and the growing Sino-Bangladesh relations is often perceived as an integral part of China’s, so-called, “Look South and South-East Asia Policy” to which Bangladesh acts as a potential gateway. Considering China’s keen policy overtures in South Asia, where India is a core country, it is more than often apprehended that China is trying to build a chain of influence around India – in her neighbourhood – in order to lessen India’s geo-political clout in the region. China has been pro-active regarding her ‘One Belt and One Road’ (OBOR) initiative, which has gained significant traction. Through the OBOR initiative, China attempts to curve out a continental geo-strategic[2] and maritime realm[3] which will have definite implications across regions of Asia as well as South Asia. Under the OBOR initiative, the ‘Belt and Road’ are expected to loop and branch and meet at critical points; and Bangladesh features in both the overland component of the initiate–-via the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC); as well as in the maritime component—as a port hub for the Maritime Silk Road.

For China, the BCIM Corridor is a key corridor in its south-eastern region, just like the geo-strategically significant China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in its west. For Bangladesh, the corridor is central because it will help attract India’s $1.2 billion market in the west, China’s $1.4 billion market in the north and Myanmar’s $70 million market in the east. With Bangladesh literally posited in the middle and with its own market pull of 160 million people it will be able to reap substantial benefits.[4] However, with excellent connections developed among these huge markets, a frenzy of economic activity will be inevitable among all the four countries as well. India, off late has shown enthusiasm in taking ahead the BCIM-EC which will link Kolkata with Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan province, passing through Myanmar and Bangladesh, with Mandalay and Dhaka as the focal points. But, for India some of the considerations have been that, this route does not follow  the meandering  Asian  Highway-1  route  from Imphal  through  the  Assam  Valley and  Meghalaya to  Bangladesh.  Instead it cuts directly across the Barak Valley through Silchar-Karimganj-Sutarkandi. This renders somewhat futile the expectations of developing and connecting India’s north eastern region (NER) by making the corridor pass through the states of Nagaland, Arunachal, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram, as well as Sikkim. However, the Indian government has proposed to build roads and railway linkages which will pass through the landlocked regions like Barak Valley, Tripura and Mizoram and subsequently join the BCIM Corridor. This will then provide the much needed boost in developing India’s NER

In the maritime component of China’s OBOR initiative also Bangladesh figures prominently. China’s investments in Bangladesh’s maritime infrastructure, is seen in-tuned with the former’s ‘String of Pearls’[5]strategy–a euphemism to explain China’s attempt to expand its naval presence throughout the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) by building maritime civilian infrastructure in friendly states. It is been apprehended that China might construct a submarine base in Bangladesh, which in turn will earn a strategic base for her in the Bay of Bengal.

However, Bangladesh being aware of India’s worries has tried to refrain from being caught up in a tug-of-war between the two Asian giants. Thus, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Bangladesh in June 2015, the two sides signed an agreement to allow Indian cargo vessels use the Chittagong port. This move is being symbolically read in India as “plucking of ‘pearl’ from China's ‘String’ in Bangladesh”[6]—meaning a reassurance, that the port will not act as a strategic base of China in the Indian Ocean. In the past two years, Bangladesh has also seen long-standing maritime and land border issues with India resolved in Dhaka’s favour, which again may be seen as New Delhi’s eagerness to make sure its neighbour does not tilt too far in China’s direction. However, Dhaka seems to be reaping tangible benefits by courting both China and India. Nevertheless, debates negating the ‘String of Pearls’ theory provide tangible justification for not considering China’s preponderant threat on India as an emergent one. In view of China’s considerable discomfiture with regard to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bangladesh as well as the tiny island states of the Seychelles and the Maldives leaving alone Pakistan with whom China shares a better equation, it will be imprudent to exaggerate China’s predominance in India’s neighbourhood.  

However, India pins optimistic hope on her rising neighbour China and their bilateral relations stand on a cooperative footing with no immediate threat of outright invasion. But New Delhi’s decision to station a full squadron of Sukhoi-30 aircraft in Tezpur and another squadron positioned in Chabua in upper Assam reflects India’s persisting suspicions about Chinese intentions in the region. Bangladesh, on the other hand, does not pose such a territorial threat upon India; rather it is considered as indispensible for the stability and development of India’s NER. Both economically as well as geographically Bangladesh can serve immensely to integrate NEI with the mainland. Transit routes through Bangladesh can help reduce transportation cost of goods and services significantly and in turn boost trade prospects of the region. But, Bangladesh’s demand for similar transit facilities through India to access the Himalayan countries of Nepal and Bhutan, in turn acts as a liability for India as the ‘China Factor’ pose a constant threat on her national security. Thus, de-securitisation and opening up of the NER seems far more intricate a challenge for India vis-a-vis the development prospect of the region. The rise of China and her increasing prowess in India’s neighbourhood thus have a seeming impact on the region. It has helped in boosting the economies of small states and at the same time provided them the power of manoeuvrability over India—the most powerful actor in South Asia. So is also true for Bangladesh, which has been increasingly trying to diversify her reach and establish links with other countries in and around the South Asian region. But instead of overdoing on the much anticipated Sino-Bangladesh ‘entente’ as an immediate threat for India, the latter should consider it as a pretext ripe enough to re-envision her neighbourhood relations carefully and especially with Bangladesh. India needs to take her cooperative engagement with Bangladesh to a much deeper level, since Bangladesh it is not only an indispensable neighbour but also a strategic regional partner with whom India shares enduring ties.

[1]       ‘Chinese Dream’ is a term coined under the Presidency of Xi Jinping to symbolise a vision to make China a great economic power whereby greater degree of economic progress will be ascertained superseding domestic and international challenges. Marc Lanteigne, Chinese Foreign Policy: An Introduction, (London and New York: Routledge, 2016), p. 8.
[2]       The belt manifests its continental geo-strategic dimension through a network of rail routes, overland highways, oil and gas pipelines and other infrastructural projects, stretching from Xian in Central China, through Central Asia and Russia, with one artery crossing Kazakhstan and the other through Mongolia but both linking up with the trans-Siberian railway and going on to Moscow, Rotterdam and Venice.
[3]       The belt manifests its continental maritime dimension through a network of ports and other coastal infrastructure from China’s eastern seaboard stretching across South East Asia, South Asia, the Gulf, East Africa and the Mediterranean, forming a loop terminating at Piraeus (Greece), Venice (Italy) and Rotterdam (Netherlands) in Europe and Mombasa ( Kenya) in Africa.
[4]       Subir Bhowmik, “Bangladesh: The Key to India’s Look East through Northeast” Policies and Practices 78,  Logistical Spaces III, Hubs, Connectivity and Transit, December 2016.
[5]    China’s ‘String of Pearls’ strategy is an ambiguous and much debated concept. The term was coined by an American, named Booz Allenin Hamilton, who used the term in his report titled “Energy Futures in Asia” published in 2005. 
[6]   By definition each “Pearl” represents some form of permanent Chinese military installation in a series of locations along a “String” stretching from Southern China, through the Indian Ocean, to the areas from where China imports much of its natural resources, such as Africa and the Middle East.

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