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China’s Rising Influence in Bangladesh and its Implications for India; By Jai Kumar Verma

C3S Paper No. 0102/ 2015


There are no permanent friends or foes, only permanent interests in international relations. This maxim proves true about India-Bangladesh relations. Bangladesh was carved out from India in 1947 as part of Pakistan; again when Pakistanis were torturing and exploiting the Bangladesh people, India came to their rescue and helped Bangladesh in achieving independence from the clutches of Pakistan and a new country with the name “People’s Republic of Bangladesh” was born in 1971.

China which has close relations with Pakistan was against the independence of Bangladesh and recognized it only in August 1975 after Pakistan recognized it in June 1974. However, now China is providing military aid, training and several infrastructure projects to Bangladesh and it is looking towards China as a counterweight to India. China which wants to encircle India is well aware of the strategic importance of Bangladesh, hence has inculcated close relations with it.

The Peoples Republic of China and Bangladesh signed a bilateral agreement in 1976, and afterwards high level visits were exchanged. Both countries have also signed agreements on defence cooperation in 2002 and 2004. The defence agreements made China an important supplier of arms, ammunition and equipment to Bangladesh. In 2005, then Chinese premier Wen Jiabao made an official visit to Bangladesh and signed nine agreements, and 2005 was declared as ‘China- Bangladesh Friendship Year’.

Direct air link between Beijing and Dhaka commenced; agreements on nuclear cooperation and space programme were signed; China also helped in construction of a fertilizer factory, mining of coal and funded several highways and rail links in Bangladesh. China surpassed India and became the biggest trading partner of Bangladesh.

China was keen to develop close relationship with defence and security forces of Bangladesh; hence it initiated quite a few training courses for security forces of the country.

China also wanted to build up a maritime corridor from South China to Bay of Bengal so to reduce its dependence on the Malacca Straits as more than 75 percent of China’s oil passes from it. Hence China started developing Chittagong port of Bangladesh which is near Kyaukpyu port of Myanmar. An oil pipeline would be going from Kyaukpyu to Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province of China. China is also helping Bangladesh in construction of Sonadia deep sea port.

In 2008 China put up a missile launch pad at Chittagong port. China sold two Ming Class submarines to Bangladesh in 2014. Bangladesh enhancing its military prowess with assistance of China may be a counter measure against its neighbours. The nefarious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has made a strong base in Bangladesh and is using it for sending Indian Fake Currency Notes (IFCN) to India. Besides IFCN it also uses the porous India-Bangladesh border for sending the ISI trained terrorists.

Although Bangladeshi leaders are trying to assure India that their relationship with China is not against any country but the policy makers in India are aware of the ill designs of China which is constantly cultivating India’s neighbors and trying to encircle the country with an ulterior motive. China has developed Gwadar port in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Chittagong in Bangladesh, has access in Hanggvi naval base of Myanmar. Besides these countries, China has also developed close diplomatic and defence relationship with Seychelles and Mauritius. Not only this, China is doing large scale land reclamation in the Spratly Islands and increasing its presence in the Paracel Islands to enhance its influence in South China Sea.  Hence China has not only encircled India, its navy has also got access to various sea points.

It is high time when India should try to resolve its differences with Bangladesh amicably and should understand that the impact of help extended in 1971 is not effective now. Both the countries should negotiate and solve problems like border dispute, water sharing, illegal migration, use of Bangladeshi soil by ISI for smuggling of IFCN, drugs, arms and sending of terrorists to India.  There are several untapped options where the trade between both the countries can be improved.

In the present era connectivity is very important hence more road and rail links should be started. There should be coastal shipping between both the countries and trade of Bangladesh should not only be restricted to West Bengal but enhanced to Tamil Nadu and other provinces. India should also try to assist Bangladesh in developing its infrastructure. The adverse publicity generated by Islamist parties about India and its policies should be handled properly.

India should also encourage the younger generation of Bangladesh to avail the education, health and economic facilities of India. People to people contact must be enhanced as it will clear several misconceptions against each other. Sincere efforts must be made to formalize trade between both the countries. In fact the informal trade is much more than the formal trade and if we include formal and informal trade it will be much more than the trade between Bangladesh and China. India must exploit the close cultural, linguistic and social ties between both the countries.

India should not consider that Bangladesh is taking help from China against India. Bangladesh is aware that its armed forces cannot compete with the defence forces of India. However, India should keep an eye on the infrastructure developed by China in India’s neighbourhood as it can be used by China against India.

In fact Bangladesh has a border dispute with Myanmar in land as well as in sea, and the clash is enhanced because of discovery of large energy reserves in the disputed waters. Energy hungry China also wants to exploit the huge energy reserves of Bangladesh.  China also mediated between Bangladesh and Myanmar on exploitation of energy resources in the sea.

Bangladesh is not only apprehensive of India but is also scared of China, hence it wants to create a balance between India and China. On one hand it is taking defence equipment from China, while on the other hand it also wants to have defence cooperation with India.

China has built a dam on Brahmaputra river known as Yarlung Zangbo river in China and announced building of three more dams, hence some areas of northeast India and Bangladesh will face severe water scarcity.  It generated a lot of ill will in Bangladesh towards China. India can elaborate on it.

Instead of bilateral relations India can also opt to develop trilateral or multilateral relations like India, Bangladesh, Japan relations, or cooperation between India, Bangladesh and China or India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar. India should also contemplate to give transit facilities to land locked countries like Bhutan and Nepal to Chittagong and Mongla ports of Bangladesh.

In a nutshell, it is beneficial to both the countries to have close relationship as it is essential for stability and prosperity of the region. India has to keep an eagle eye on the nefarious designs of ISI and about the strategic implications of China encircling India. In fact, India should counter Chinese moves regionally as well as internationally by having close ties with the USA, and its neighbours with whom China has border disputes.

(Jai Kumar Verma is a Delhi-based strategic analyst. He can be contacted at contributions@spsindia.in)

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