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Bangladesh wants to know the reason behind China’s sudden statement

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Bangladesh was taken aback by the Chinese ambassador’s remark that Dhaka-Beijing relations would be damaged if Bangladesh joined Quad, the US-led four-nation informal security dialogue that included India. Bangladesh said that while Dhaka has not shown any interest in joining Quad so far, the Chinese ambassador had crossed the line in making this remark. Bangladesh wants to know why China made this statement at a time when the two countries had a good understanding.

A reliable source in the government on Tuesday told this correspondent that relevant persons of the government may speak to the Chinese ambassador in this regard on Wednesday.

The Chinese ambassador Li Jiming on Monday, while exchanging views at a meeting with diplomatic correspondents in Dhaka, said if Bangladesh joins Quad, relations will be damaged between the two countries. This remark sparked of a flurry of debate and discussion in local and international media.

It is not clear as yet whether the government will issue any statement regarding the Chinese ambassador’s remark. However, after an event at the state guest house to hand over medicines and other emergency medical items to Nepal on Tuesday morning, foreign minister AK Momen told newspersons, “We do not always reveal to the media what we do. We have a different way of doing things. We know what we will do. It won’t do to reveal everything.”

Replying to questions from the media, the foreign minister said, Bangladesh has not been approached as yet to join Quad. That is why Bangladesh feels the Chinese ambassador has crossed the line in making this comment. He said, “China normally never interferes in others’ business. We have never heard them speak so aggressively. This is regrettable. We did not expect this from China.”

However, Bangladesh’s diplomats and diplomatic analysts say that China’s diplomats have taken up ‘aggressive diplomacy’ during the rule of Chinese president Xi Jinping. And this was reflected in the Chinese ambassador’s remark on Sunday. In fact, this attitude has been displayed by Chinese ambassadors over the past few years in various countries. The analysts said that China has also adopted this attitude to tackle the pressure from the West ever since the outbreak of coronavirus.

Diplomatic sources in Dhaka have told this correspondent that China has been increasing its influence in various countries through vaccine diplomacy during the coronavirus pandemic. Recently it officially took up an initiative with five South Asian countries including Bangladesh to tackle the coronavirus situation. India is not part of this initiative till now.

In the meantime, border clashes with India, US proximity with India, the Indo-Pacific Strategy and the recent summit of top Quad leaders, have given China cause for concern. Diplomatic analysts see another area of China’s concern too. They point out that over the past one year, India’s foreign minister, foreign secretary, army chief, air force chief and other government dignitaries visited Bangladesh. Also in this span of time, special envoy to the US president, the US deputy secretary of state and other officials also visited Bangladesh. These trips to Bangladesh by important political and military officials of the US and India must have caused China a degree of consternation. Meanwhile, among its important officials, China’s defence minister only visited Dhaka last month. During his visit, he basically delivered the message to Dhaka about of Beijing’s discomfort with Quad and the US-India alliance.

The Chinese ambassador on Monday also criticised Bangladesh’s steps regarding the Covid vaccine. Speaking about whether anything had created a distance and tensions between the two countries, a diplomat, on condition of anonymity, told this correspondent that so far China and Bangladesh had a good understanding. Nothing had happened to instigate the ambassador to make such remarks. However, the points he had made regarding Bangladesh’s delay in approving China’s vaccines were not exaggerated. The allegations of delay regarding the vaccine were not unfounded. But at a juncture when the two countries were taking their relations ahead, it was surprising that the Chinese ambassador made such remarks.

Diplomatic sources say that the Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar had visited Dhaka last year before the Quad virtual summit. He had clearly stated then that Bangladesh-India relations had a bright future in the connectivity centred on the Bay of Bengal. He also talked about including countries like Japan in this connectivity. And Japan said that the Matarbari project in Cox’s Bazar was part of IPS. Immediately after that, IPS and the Bay of Bengal connectivity issue featured prominently in an international conference held in Dhaka. Japan even highlighted the Bay of Bengal and IPS issues at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s centenary event in March. And so Beijing’s concern about the US, Japan, India and Australia’s shared stance on Quad and IPS was reflected in the remarks made by the Chinese defence minister during his Bangladesh visit in April and also by the recent remarks of the Chinese ambassador.

Bangladesh-China relations

Bangladesh has close cooperation with China in infrastructure development, defence and others areas. And several high level visits between the two countries over the past decade have added a new dimension to the relations. Prime minister Sheikh Hasina has visited Beijing several times. Relations between the two countries reached a strategic level when the Chinese president Xi Jinping visited Bangladesh in 2016. During this visit, China made a commitment of about USD 20 billion (USD200 crore) for various development projects including railway lines along Padma bridge, construction of tunnel under the river Karnaphuli, communication infrastructure, ICT and more.

That meeting of the top leaders of Bangladesh and China in 2016 generated considerable curiousity on the global arena. And a fresh dimension was added to geopolitics when, immediately after the visit, China delivered the submarine purchased by Bangladesh. Indian defence minister at the time, Manohar Parikar, came to Dhaka soon after than with a draft defence deal between the two countries. The next year, in 2017, Bangladesh signed the defence deal with India. And from that year the US has been asking Bangladesh to join IPS.

Bangladesh’s former ambassador to China, Munshi Faiz Ahmed, speaking to Prothom Alo, said China was under pressure from the West because of its economic growth. And the West was also giving it no peace over the Hong Kong, Uighur, Taiwan and South China Sea issues. That is why China in recent times has been reacting quite strongly. In the past as it was expanding its economy, China had remained silent. It had advanced well then too. Overreacting could have a counter-productive effect.