Chinese proposal to Bangladesh for sister-city alliance
The Communist Party of China (CPC) has offered to help Bangladesh in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic if the country agrees to form sister-city alliances with select Chinese cities. CPC made the proposal during a meeting with Bangladesh’s ruling party Awami League in May this year. The CPC proposed to form sister-city alliances with six Bangladeshi cities including Dhaka North, one of the two city corporations of the capital. The Chinese proposal, considered a friendly gesture, is widely appreciated in Bangladesh. Nevertheless, the Chinese offer of sister-city alliances in the time of Covid-19 attracted international attention leading to concerns about China’s intention behind the proposal made.
The Covid-19 infection is increasing steadily in Bangladesh and nearly 74,865 people are infected with 1,012 having died from the disease at the time of writing. Some unofficial estimate suggests the number of infections might be much higher. The Covid-19 is not only challenging the existing healthcare facilities in the impoverished nation but also have impacted the economy of the country. Like the trend globally, Bangladesh’s economic growth is likely to falter due to outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic. Bangladesh is desperately seeking support of the international community to tackle the challenges because of the spread of the pandemic and the international communities have been offering support to. Neighbouring India has offered medical relief assistance to the country as part of its Covid-19 assistance support to SAARC countries. China offered to provide technical and financial support to Bangladesh to curb the Covid-19 disease, dengue and similar pandemics if Bangladesh agreed on its proposal. China also suggested helping the Bangladesh cities develop like the cities in China once the country accepted its proposal.
Sister-cities are formed with the signing of agreements between cities of two countries to promote the cultural and commercial relationship. US President D. Eisenhower is claimed to be the first to introduce the concept of sister-city. The core motivation behind the sister-city is to promote people-people to connectivity or ‘citizen diplomacy’ between the two countries. Traditionally, sister-cities are considered to have been helpful in developing understanding and a sense of bonding among the people of the two cities who ally.
China gives prominence to the diplomacy of sister-cities and it has gradually become integral to China’s foreign policy. Chinese cities have sister-city tie-ups with cities across the globe. Amongst the Chinese cities, Shanghai and Beijing have the highest number of sister-city arrangements. Developing cultural linkages at the local level has been an important motivation of China behind promoting the sister-city alliances. China encourages interaction among the people of the sister-cities and offers various educational exchanges, art and linguistic residences and cultural programme.
Recently, apprehensions are expressed about Chinese intention for pursuing countries to enter sister-city alliances. The Chinese motivation exceeds the promotion of cultural ties and it has a larger geostrategic objective. In 2019, China Daily reported about Li Xiaolin, president of Chinese People Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries mentioning that “sister-city relations play an important role in boosting cooperation and exchanges among Chinese and foreign cities under the framework of the BRI.” This statement coming from the head of the nodal organisation managing the country’s ‘sister-city’ relationship sent out some whispers about the motives. BRI is the abbreviation of the Belt Road Initiative, which is China’s flagship foreign policy initiative under which large infrastructure projects are developed in the countries across the globe and have geostrategic underpinning. China is emphasising on developing sister-cities in the countries that joined BRI and is estimated to have already established sister-city relations with around 700 cities in the countries joining BRI.
Linking BRI to the sister-city arrangement raised suspicions about Chinese intentions, primarily at the time when the global geostrategic order is facing strains because of its rising competition with powers like the United States of America. Countries in Europe are expressing reservations over the Chinese sister- city initiative because of its explicit connection with the BRI. Many European cities that have had sister-city arrangements with China are showing reluctance in pursuing such ties. The Swedish cities of Linköping, Lulea, and Vasteras have ended official cooperation deals with Guangzhou, Xi’an, and Jinan.
In 2016, Bangladesh joined the BRI and has remained least bothered about the apprehensions regarding the initiative globally. BRI is criticised, basically for the debt burden and the exploitation by China that a country faces if they fail to repay the debt. The case of Sri Lanka, another South Asian country, which had to give a portion of its land on lease to China after failing to repay the loan is well known. Bangladesh is confident that a similar situation will not occur in its case and will be able to negotiate better terms with China. In May this year, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during her telephonic discussion with Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated the commitment of her country’s cooperation to BRI.
Bangladesh is an important partner of China in South Asia. China has offered to invest around $24 billion in Bangladesh, which is one of the highest assistance promised to a country under BRI. A large portion of the committed assistance will be in the form of credit. With the unfolding of BRI, Chinese engagement in Bangladesh will increase and this is driving the Chinese desire and necessity to expand understanding of the communities locally there. The sister- city arrangement allows China to penetrate deep inside Bangladesh’s society locally.
Notably, Bangladesh and China today enjoy a warm and friendly relationship and have formed a strategic partnership. The two countries share a close military and economic relationship. China is Bangladesh’s biggest trading partner with the trade favouring China. However, the difference in culture between the two countries is considered a lacuna in this relationship. For bridging this gap, China is persistently enhancing its public diplomacy to foster people-to-people connectivity through measures like - encouraging educational and cultural exchanges, organising visits of media and political parties’ delegations, establishing Chinese language institutes, organising interaction among the trade bodies, think tanks and many other activities.
China’s public outreach has paid a dividend in forming a favourable public opinion in support of the relationship. In Bangladesh, rarely any negative sentiment about China is voiced in public. Despite the presence of trade imbalance with China, the issue is hardly highlighted and recognised as a problem in bilateral relations. Also, media and civil societies barely express resentment against China for not adequately pressurising Myanmar for the repatriation of Rohingya refugees. Interestingly, media and people in Bangladesh are however vociferous in expressing disappointment about India for not doing enough in resolving the Rohingya crisis. Again, the trade imbalance with India is repeatedly highlighted as a major irritant and there is limited acknowledgement of Indian efforts in addressing Bangladesh’s concerns. For instance, India provided duty free access to Bangladesh products (except few narcotic substances) in order to adjust the trade gap. Following this measure, Bangladeshi export to India witnessed a significant surge. In 2019, Bangladesh’s export to India touched US$1 billion. It’s mentionable that any small gesture by China is highlighted widely in Bangladesh media.
Perception of China being non-interfering in the country’s domestic affairs have favoured shaping of public support to the relationship. In a transformational world, global geopolitics becoming confrontational Chinese behaviour is expected to change. Rising influence will make China assertive and will be dictating terms of policies in the country including in internal affairs.
Considering the asymmetries existing between the two countries, Bangladesh needs to holistically analyse the ramifications of the Chinese proposals. The principle of equidistance, which has been the guiding principle of Bangladesh’s foreign policy will be hampered and will impact its relationship with other powers. Maintaining autonomy of the foreign policy will be crucial for sustaining peace and stability of the country and South Asia.