Should India worry about China's influence in Bangladesh?
The Indian foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s surprise visit to Bangladesh on August 18 would not have made as much news if it weren't for the fact that he became the first foreign official to visit the country in the midst of a pandemic and the fact that news about Bangladesh turning to China for financial help with as many as nine infrastructure projects for a total of $6.4 billion had burst into the media spotlight.
Indian news reports highlighted that Bangladesh had asked China for close to a billion dollars to manage the Teesta river which has long remained a friction point between the two countries. Though both India and Bangladesh have come a long way and have closed the chapter on other long-standing disputes, the Teesta water pact has failed repeatedly. It failed once in 2011, then again in 2015. Talks have continued ever since.
But that has not stopped Bangladesh and India from maintaining good relations. Joyeeta Bhattacharjee, an expert on Bangladesh at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), a think tank in Delhi, said credit had to go to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Hasina, Bhattacharjee said, has been able to tactfully define Bangladesh's relationship with the regional rivals who have continuously offered financial assistance to the state to pursue their own geopolitical interests.
Just as China launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, India, in 2014, formulated a new ‘neighbourhood first’ policy to boost regional ties. (India hasn’t joined BRI; Bangladesh has.) In 2016, the Chinese President Xi Jinping offered Bangladesh a $24 billion economic package—which became Dhaka’s biggest foreign credit line—for a number of projects across multiple sectors. Xi also enhanced ties with the country to a strategic partnership. In 2017, India offered a $5 billion loan, the largest ever line of credit India offered any country at a single go. The loan was a clear attempt to wean Bangladesh away from Chinese influence.
But a closer look at the BRI projects suggests another story. As of mid-2019, only $981 million of the $24 billion economic package had been disbursed to Bangladesh. A lot of bureaucratic hurdles had slowed down the process. Similarly, in 2016, Bangladesh had cancelled Chinese funding for a deepsea port after India, the US, and Japan raised concerns. They feared that it would have given China an advantage in the Indian Ocean, an important area of maritime rivalry between India and China. Bangladesh assigned the project to Japan instead. At the same time, even at the apparent displeasure of Delhi, Bangladesh went ahead and purchased two submarines from China worth $203 million in 2017.
Faiz Sobhan, a senior research director at the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Dhaka, said that the "China factor" or its role in Bangladesh is "being somewhat overplayed," in light of recent reports. He said that China and Bangladesh were not new friends and have long held strong ties. “Bangladesh views China as an important partner and both countries share a cordial and friendly relationship. But Bangladesh equally shares strong economic and development ties with Japan, India and other countries," Sobhan said.