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China’s influence looms strong over Sheikh Hasina’s India visit

Jabin T Jacob | Updated on: 7 April 2017, 19:26 IST
(Feng Li/Getty Image)

After two postponements, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has final landed in India for a state visit from 7-10 April.

But it’s clear that getting this visit to take will be a far cry from the warmth and cordiality that was on display in words and deeds during Indian Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Dhaka in June 2015.

Hasina’s reservations have to do with her fear of leaving New Delhi without any agreement either on sharing the Teesta river waters or on constructing the Ganges barrage on the Padma river at Pangsha near Rajbari.

The agreement has fallen through multiple times, during both the UPA tenure as well as during Modi’s visit. This is despite Dhaka agreeing to a majority of India’s major demands of allowing transit of goods to Northeast both from Indian mainland overland through Bangladesh territory and by sea through the Bangladeshi ports of Chittagong and Mongla.

The contrast

The coming state visit will be Hasina’s first in seven years to India and it might be useful to compare and contrast the progress in Dhaka’s ties with China – India’s principal challenger for Bangladesh’s affections – in the meantime.

Prime Minister Modi’s own visit to Dhaka came nearly four years after the last visit by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in September 2011, while Indian President Pranab Mukherjee’s state visit to Bangladesh in March 2013 was the first such since 1974 when VV Giri visited.

Meanwhile, Chinese official visits to Bangladesh, while late in coming, have been more muscular, focused and varied in nature than Indian ones. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Dhaka in November 2016 is a major milestone in Sino-Bangladeshi ties but Xi had also earlier visited Dhaka in June 2010, when he was still Vice-President. This fact imbues a certain heft to the Chinese relationship with Bangladesh. Importantly, in October 2012, Bangladesh saw the visit of yet another Politburo Standing Committee member, Li Changchun.

Both Gen Xu Qiliang, present Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission in China and Gen. Chang Wanquan, the Defence Minister visited Bangladesh in May 2014 and May 2016 respectively, well before Manohar Parrikar became the first Indian Defence Minister to visit Bangladesh in November 2016

Further, just before the Modi visit, Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong went to Bangladesh in late May 2015 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and Bangladesh. Exactly a year earlier in May 2014, Yan Junqi, vice-chairperson of Chinese National People’s Congress visited Dhaka

By contrast, India’s Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan made her first ever visit to Bangladesh only in January 2016 and that too, to attend a multilateral forum, the South Asian Speakers’ Summit on Achieving Sustainable Development Goals. 

President Xi Jinping’s 2016 visit to Dhaka saw the two countries sign deals worth some US$38 billion in all, which takes it to nearly the same league as China’s original investment figures for the Economic Corridor in Pakistan of US$46 billion (now US$54.5 billion). And yet, this fact – alongside the reality that China is already Bangladesh’s largest trading partner – does not seem to have excited as much attention in the Indian media as Chinese investments in Pakistan have. 

In contrast to the big-ticket announcements of the Xi visit, the big money news during Modi’s Bangladesh visit was a second concessional Line of Credit of US$2 billion on top of a previous 2011 Line of Credit of approximately US$1 billion

While this might be comparing apples and oranges, in terms of sheer optics, the Chinese surely win hands down among the Bangladeshi public and even intelligentsia.

Military relations

What is more, New Delhi is now pressing Dhaka for a comprehensive, 25-year agreement on defence cooperation.

Potential domestic political costs for Sheikh Hasina – especially if the waters agreements do not come through – aside, there is also the purely military dimension with China for her to consider. 

Some 82% of Bangladesh’s defense purchases from 2009 to 2013 have come from China, making it the world’s third-largest buyer of Chinese weapons. 

In mid-November 2016, the Bangladesh Navy took delivery of its first submarines from China – two Type 035G refurbished Ming-class diesel submarines. The Bangladesh Navy had earlier in the year also inducted two corvettes built by the Chinese and two more are under construction. 

In January 2016, meanwhile, the PLA Navy’s 21st escort fleet arrived at Chittagong en route to India’s International Fleet Review.

It is therefore, no surprise that the Bangladeshi civilian and military leadership are hesitant about a wide-ranging defence pact with India that would be seen in Beijing as nothing short of an alliance relationship with India. Bangladesh therefore, prefers ‘a more calibrated, phased approach’ through a MoU even as it is willing to increase defence cooperation including tackling terrorism. Further, as one Chinese media report puts it, Bangladeshi military leaders do not wish to buy defense weapons from India given the latter’s own heavy dependence on other countries and because they see Indian weapons as not being of sufficiently high-quality

For China the value might not be so much in a defence sale as much as in the continuous access to the Bangladeshi military and the Bay of Bengal that training and servicing for the latest Bangladeshi acquisitions will ensure. It is also, therefore, no wonder that an Indian defence minister finally decided to visit Dhaka only in the immediate wake of news that the Chinese were handing over submarines to Bangladesh. 

That however, makes India a reactive player in its own neighbourhood in South Asia and both the Chinese and Bangladeshis will conduct their negotiations with New Delhi accordingly.

First published: 7 April 2017, 19:26 IST