China-Bangladesh relations and cooperation are often expressed with ornamental adjectives such as, ‘trusted friends’, ‘all-weather friends’ and ‘strategic partners’. It is also noticed that both parties are happy to see the cooperation with the quantitative terms. The number of Memoranda of Understanding (MoU), number of projects, amount of loan and assistance in billions of dollars, etc may be taken as examples which are widely seen in bold capital headlines of the print media or heard in talk-shows in the electronic media. It gives a general impression to all of us that the people of Bangladesh are extremely happy to receive Chinese cooperation. It also gives an expression of self-satisfaction and confidence of all corners the guarantee of continuously receiving such cooperation. The Chinese support for coronavirus management at the initial stage and the good quantity of vaccines supply as a gift at the critical time may be taken as solid examples of friendship between the two countries and that can give a lesson that the strength of their mutual cooperation cannot be measured by any unit or bounded within few adjectives. However, we see a prominent change in Chinese geopolitical and geo-economics strategies. It has also been experienced that Bangladesh, even after fifty years of independence, has not promulgated the elaborate policies to guide the foreign engagement. To continue with the ongoing friendly cooperation or to further strengthening the relations between these two strategic partners there are few issues that need to be taken into consideration by both sides.
Since the recognition of Bangladesh in the mid-seventies, China has been extending her hands of cooperation with a friendly gesture. Initially, cooperation was limited to economic and defence sectors’ development. Thereafter, that has been continuously expanding encompassing other major sectors. After Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Bangladesh in October 2017, Bangladesh officially declared joining his geostrategic Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project. China has committed to be the partner of building Bangabandhu’s Sonar Bangla and help Bangladesh materialise the vision of becoming a developed country by 2041. We can easily understand China’s good gesture by signing 27 MoUs involving $24 billion for mega infrastructure building projects which include highways, railways, bridges, tunnels, telecommunication, IT etc. For Bangladesh, China is considered the highest financial supporting country. It is also to be mentioned that China has offered zero-tariff facilities to 97 per cent of the Bangladeshi products. Availing that opportunity, Bangladesh’s export could be increased to a great extent. However, Bangladesh has not received expected cooperation from China in solving the Rohingya problem. Delay in the repatriation of Rohingyas to their homeland Myanmar would create multiple security threats. The rise in extremism, drug smuggling, hazards to health and environment, social nuisance, etc are likely to affect Bangladesh’s peace and stability. Bangladesh should strongly make diplomatic efforts on obtaining China’s support to create pressure on Myanmar to take its citizens back at the earliest.
Bangladesh is considered an important country for China from geostrategic and geoeconomics perspectives. Bangladesh is a littoral country of the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal and located in geographical proximity to China’s Yunnan Province. It can provide overland connectivity for the supply of China’s energy resources and help China in reducing her dependence on the Straits of Malacca. The huge market comprising 180 million population of Bangladesh offers enormous economic interest to China. Bangladesh, because of its cheap labour, is an attractive outsourcing destination to China.
Bangladesh is showing praiseworthy economic growth for more than a decade and aiming to be a developed nation by 2041. To achieve that goal Bangladesh needs foreign support for building its capacity in major sectors like communication, energy and power, science and technology, education, health, etc. China, being the second-largest economic power in the world, is offering its financial, technical and technological support with suitable terms and conditions. Moreover, China’s foreign policy of non-interference to internal affairs of any country provides the government and people of Bangladesh a feeling of confidence to strengthen the relationship with that country.
Since the 1950s, China is following five principles of friendship and cooperation in their foreign policy – mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty; mutual non-aggression; non-interference in each other’s internal affairs; equality and mutual benefit; and peaceful coexistence. Over the past seven decades, the five principles of peaceful coexistence have been widely accepted by most countries and many nations have established bilateral strategical partnerships with China. China has also extended its hand of cooperation to Muslim countries including Pakistan, Iran, Sudan and Syria, with the principles of ‘partnership’, ‘equality’ and ‘win-win cooperation’. Muslim countries of Southeast Asia – Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia – have also got China as their top economic partner.
Middle East and Central Asian countries, including Afghanistan, have experiences of interference from the western world in their domestic affairs. China, with its ‘win-win partnership’, ‘mutual respect’ and ‘non-interference’ foreign policy, can play an important role in building peace and harmony in the Muslim world. Bangladesh, having its friendly relations with all Muslim countries, can also help to develop that harmony.
However, with the fast economic and military power growth and since Xi Jinping’s assumption as President, there are changes of gesture observed in China’s foreign policy. Its dominance in the South China Sea, growing interest in the Indian Ocean, Belt and Road initiative, etc are now points of concern for many countries, especially the USA and the western world. Chinese projects like Colombo Sea Port, China Pakistan Economic Corridors and China Iran Strategic Partnership Agreement, etc are seen as China’s influence over those countries. In the recent G7 summit held in the UK, G7 countries agreed to work together to counter China’s fast-increasing geostrategic influence. President Biden has proposed the US-backed Build Back Better World (B3W) plan as a better alternative to a similar Chinese BRI programme.
It may be mentioned that since independence, Bangladesh has also been receiving economic support from the USA, EU, Russia, India and Middle Eastern countries and international financial institutes like World Bank and Asian Development Bank for her development. But, due to the absence of proper guidelines, engagement policy with foreign countries is not cleared by the national development planners and general people of Bangladesh. Domestic economic capability and the need for external assistance for achieving the target of becoming a developed nation by 2041 are yet to be studied comprehensively. The negotiation skill of diplomats and bureaucrats play a vital role to gain a win-win situation in any contract.
In summary, Bangladesh should warmly accept China’s good gesture of friendship and make China a major development partner to achieve her national objectives. That should be carefully planned so that Bangladesh and China both countries are mutually benefitted from the cooperation and strategic partnership. Besides, Bangladesh should try to attain China’s support to solve the Rohingya crisis. China and Bangladesh may put joint efforts on establishing peace, stability and harmony in the Muslim countries.
M Humayun Kabir, a former Air vice Marshal of Bangladesh Air Force, and former Defence Adviser of the Bangladesh government to Malaysia, is a Senior Research Fellow, and Project Coordinator (Bangladesh) of China-Muslim World Co-operation Research (CMWCR) at Muslim World Research Center (MWRC) in Malaysia. He can be reached by email – firstname.lastname@example.org