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Quad diplomacy: Where does Bangladesh stand?

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Quadrilateral diplomacy

Tensions have been running high for the past few months with all sorts of calculations on the books. Where does Bangladesh stand? By Delhi’s side or beside Beijing? Diplomatic analysts are in a dilemma. Delhi is anxious and has opted for intense diplomacy, reaching out to distant friends. And rather dramatically, Washington has arrived on the scene to join this emerging quadrilateral diplomacy.

Washington now is all out to woo Dhaka. And the tussle has commenced between Delhi, Beijing and Washington. The question is, will Dhaka finally lean towards Washington? That is a vital question for Delhi.

US and China are two superpowers, the top economies in the world. But US does not have billions and billions of dollars invested in Bangladesh, as has China. China is ahead in the race, that much is clear. And Washington is now fully focused on South Asia, even sidelining the US elections. They are concerned that China may consolidate its position in the region if they do not make haste.

It is being said that Bangladesh has hurt India by opting to link itself to China’s One Belt One Road or BRI (Belt and Road Initiative). The US leadership has come up with the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) to counter BRI. Last month the US undersecretary for economic growth, energy and environment, Keith Krach called upon US companies to invest in Bangladesh’s energy, IT, pharmaceutical and agricultural sectors. He made this appeal at a virtual meeting on 30 September.

This consultation seems to be the highest level of such moves in the history of US-Bangladesh relations when it comes to economic cooperation. Several observers in Dhaka claim that there is a slump in Dhaka-Beijing relations. For mysterious reasons the Sinovac vaccine trial did not take place in Dhaka. Japan got the contract for a deep seaport at Matarbariin Cox’s Bazar, south of Bangladesh. And now advancements are being made in Dhaka-Washington relations.

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Washington has signed an aviation deal with Dhaka, under its ‘open sky’ policy. Initiative has been taken for direct flights between Bangladesh and the US. The deal was signed on 30 September. A statement issued by the US state department in Washington said that this ‘open sky’ policy will create fresh opportunities for strong economic trade partnership between Bangladesh and the US, increase people to people contact and open opportunities for aviation and tourism companies.  Observers also took note that before Washington or Dhaka officially announced the Dhaka trip of US undersecretaryStephen E Biegun, the news was splashed in the Indian media.

India’s state-run news agency PTI reported on 9 October that it had been officially stated that Mr Biegun’s trip was a part of the Delhi-Washington dialogue running on throughout the year. The US secretary of state Mike Pompeo will also be visiting India to hold talks with Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar this month. And towards the end of this month is the US-India 2+2 ministerial dialogue. That entails meetings of the foreign ministers and defence ministers of the two countries.

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Mr Biegun, in a keynote presentation at Delhi, said that the Quad had been created among the US, India, Japan and Australia. He said they would work in the changed and current environment of the Indo-Pacific region. This Quad stands against China.

While the details of what transpired during discussions in Delhi on matters of regional security before he came to Dhaka remain unknown, a statement was made immediately after Mr Biegun’s visit. It was said that US undersecretary, during his Delhi visit, had discussed how the US could collaborate with India and possible partners in jointly tackling issues of ‘regional security’ and ‘economic cooperation’.

Interestingly, while the US undersecretary was in Delhi, he also met with the Bhutan ambassador there.

A statement issued by the US embassy in Dhaka had said that security and peace in the Indo-Pacific region would feature prominently on the agenda of the US deputy secretary.

Observers note that not too long ago the Indian foreign secretary, Mr Shringla, had paid a sudden visit to Bangladesh. He came and said that India would be producing the Oxford vaccine and would give that to Bangladesh. China had also committed to provide its vaccine. Now Mr Biegun also pledged to remain by Bangladesh’s side in tackling coronavirus.  

According to Eurasia Times, the US deputy secretary said in Delhi that the US would step up dialogue with India’s neighbours. It would ‘reset’ relations with Bangladesh.

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Till now, the US is attaching priority to India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives among South Asian countries. The US deputy secretary visited Bangladesh, but the secretary of state Mike Pompeo will be visiting India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives this month.

Sri Lanka and the Maldives have established new strategic relations with China, outside of the Indian orbit. China has much higher states in the Maldives than in Bangladesh. It has set up a seaport there. It has also, in the meantime, taken up management of the port it constructed in Sri Lanka too.

Noticeably, nothing is known of what Bangladesh has said to the US during talks in the Into-Pacific Strategy. Prior to his departure from Dhaka, the US deputy secretary met with a few selected members of the media and elaborated on what he had discussed about IPS with Bangladesh. He said they wanted Dhaka by their side in IPS. He did not comment on Bangladesh’s response.

In the meantime, Asia Times reported that when asked on Thursday morning what the US had said about IPS during discussions, foreign minister Abdul Momen said that there had been no discussions on the issue. Similarly, when responding to newspersons on Wednesday, state minister for foreign affair Shahriar Alam also said that there had been no discussions on IPS.

Curiousity also prevails concerning the talks between prime minister Sheikh Hasina and Mr Biegun. No news had appeared about the contents of that meeting. 

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The question that obviously prevails is, what will Bangladesh do now? Will it just remain silent or will it take up a new path to proceed ahead? It is being said that Washington will no longer be viewing Dhaka through Delhi’s eyes. And yet in not too distant past, US ambassador Dan Mozena had to go to Delhi regarding a general election in Dhaka. Mozena had failed to change Delhi’s stance. Delhi got its way.

Meanwhile, Asia Times on 14 October published a report during the US deputy secretary’s visit. In his article, ‘Bangladesh wins and loses in China-India rivalry,’ Bertil Lintner wrote that Bangladesh is in the middle of rising Indian and Chinese competition for South Asian influence. But Dhaka has reasons to be wary of them both.

Former correspondent of Far Eastern Economic Review, Bertil Lintner had created a stir with his reporting on the rise of militancy in Bangladesh. The BNP and Jamaat government had been in power at the time.

He has now written about Bangladesh after a long time. He says Bangladesh is in the middle of India and China’s competition and this can give it an advantage, but can also create problems. It is maintaining strong strategic ties with India on the one hand, just having completed a joint naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal. On the other hand, China has come to stand beside Bangladesh, particularly in the infrastructure sector. China has opened its chequebook diplomacy for Bangladesh, bringing the two sides closer than ever before in history.

Lintner writes that it is debatable as to whether India or China has more sway in Dhaka presently. Bangladesh has some sore points in its relations with India. China may have an upper hand with its strategic advantage. Nine projects of over US$ 7 billion, funded by China, are underway in Bangladesh.

Bertil Lintner also writes that it is uncertain whether the recent joint India-Bangladesh naval exercise will improve broader ties, but it will certainly irk China. The Indian side sent an anti-submarine warfare corvette to the exercise with the stated aim of taking measures to stop unlawful activities.

In this maritime region, the only active foreign submarines are of China. In recent years, China’s submarines have made increasingly frequent forays into the Bay of Bengal. The anti-submarine aspect of the joint India-Bangladesh exercise will not have escaped the notice of Beijing’s security planners.

Under these circumstances, what will Bangladesh do? Will it directly take sides or try to keep everyone happy? There may be no answer at the moment to this million dollar question. But this much is certain, a wrong decision can usher in danger. The wheels of development may grind to a halt.


Matiur Rahman Chowdhury is a senior journalist of Bangladesh, editor of the daily Manabzamin, popular TV host and renowned political and regional analyst.