Syed Ali Mujtaba did an online interview with Professor Taj Hashmi, an expert on Bangladesh, on the topic increasing Chinese influence on Bangladesh. Professor Taj Hashmi is one of the widely followed academics on Bangladesh affairs and has taught Security Studies at Austin Peay State University, USA. He is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society (FRAS). He is a Former Professor of Asian Studies at the UBC (Canada) and of Security Studies at the APCSS (US). He is the author of the famous book “Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan” (SAGE 2014). This distinguished scholar has made some interesting observations on this subject. Here are some excerpts of his interview.
Can you take us through to the Bangladesh – China relationship?
The growing Bangladesh – China relationship can be traced to the Indian elections in May 2014 that gave China the opportunity that it was looking for. The defeat of the Congress Party in the Indian elections made Sheikh Hasina nervous about the BJP government, apprehending Narendra Modi would not legitimize her government through the farcical polls in January 2014. And that made Hasina seek Chinese support to keep her regime afloat. And, what was possibly unthinkable happened then, China was the first super power to legitimize the controversial 2014 elections in Bangladesh.
What is the Sonadia project controversy between India and China?
Actually in return of the legitimacy to her government, Shiekh Hasina gave China whatever it wanted from Bangladesh. This included the multi-billion-dollar contract to build a deep seaport at Sonadia. Now here comes India into the picture. With Gwadar and Hambantota and now Sonadia, India saw its neck being squeezed by the Chinese necklace. India’s PM Modi pressured, Shiekh Hasina to scrap the Sonadia project which she did in 2015. China did not like the way Hasina reneged from her promise, but it was the beginning when China started pulling Bangladesh out of the Indian orbit.
What happened in the 2018 Election in Bangladesh?
Actually the turning point in Bangladesh – China relationship came in December 2018 when national elections were held in Bangladesh. Here, it needs to be reiterated that India literally helped the Awami League to rig the 1914 election, but after the change of government in India India’s foreign secretary, Jai Shankar was not so active in Bangladesh as was his predecessor Sujata Singh (August 2013 to January 2015). Shiekh Hasina in November 2017 made a request to Prime Minister Modi, to help her in the 2018 national election. To such a request Modi simply asked Hasina to hold free and fair polls.
So do you think China replaced India in the 2018 election in Bangladesh?
Yes this is a fact. Hasina turned to China out of sheer desperation as she was apprehensive of losing the polls badly. She also feared that thousands of Awami League workers and leaders may fall victims to revenge killings by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). China was too eager to embrace Hasina.
China played an important role in the 2018 election with generous financial support to do the unprecedented rigging of the Parliamentary Elections in favor of her Awami League party.
There is little doubt that China is keeping the Hasina regime afloat since then. The unprecedented electoral victory of Sheikh Hasina’s in 2018 was due to China’s benevolence.
So you mean to say China helped in rigging the 2018 election in Bangladesh?
Yes, Hasina had another cakewalk through the grossly rigged elections in 2018. This was purely because of her leaning towards Beijing. What is noteworthy is, since then almost surreptitiously, Beijing has replaced New Delhi in Dhaka. China’s presence is felt everywhere in Bangladesh. China has replaced India even in matters of politics, the way India was doing between 2009 and 2018.
Can you give some examples how China has replaced India in Bangladesh?
There were few mega projects in Bangladesh in which the Chinese were not even involved in the blueprint stage, but when it was made known, China was in and India was out, because the former had loaned and invested over USD 24 billion. This was besides the Chinese investment of USD30 billion in Bangladesh.
Besides lending billions of dollars to Bangladesh for infrastructure development, China is also directly involved in some very strategically important projects in the country, which could be not-so-benign for India in the long-run.
We know China is the biggest provider of military hardware to Bangladesh. Now, China is engaged in building the General Osmani International Airport at Sylhet, in close proximity to the Indo-Bangladesh border.
Most importantly, China is building a submarine base at Chittagong. And, one wonders the long-term implications of this base. Will it be exclusively used by the Bangladesh Navy or the Chinese Navy will be using it as well? It’s an important question for India!”
More recently, President Xi Jinping had sent a planeload of assistance including doctors to help her fight the Pandemic in Bangladesh. Dhaka-Beijing had entered into a twin sister city agreement.
So do you think Modi has downgraded Bangladesh in its list of priorities?
The signs are obvious; Modi did not ensure another victory for Hasina in the 2018. Even after Awami League’s “spectacular” victory, New Delhi did not show much enthusiasm, as it had done in 2014. Modi, government only sent a customary congratulatory message to Hasina. New Delhi’s lukewarm response was because India had no role in the 2018 general election in Bangladesh. This is also established by the fact that there are little visible exchanges after the 2018 elections between Bangladesh and India.
So do you think India has taken things lying down even as China has entered Bangladesh from the back door?
No, in fact New Delhi has watched with growing alarm, the deepening of Dhaka-Beijing relations. Since China has started making huge overtures towards Bangladesh, New Delhi’s views have changed from concerns to alarms, even if Sheikh Hasina remains in a denial mood.
India gave back Hasina a big warning exposing corruption around her administration. The way the Chatra League, Jubo League and many in the inner circles of the Awami League were publicly exposed had all the trade mark of India’s hand. The behind the scenes initiatives by India was a warning to Sheikh Hasina not to enter into any deep relations with China.
Further, India engaged in propaganda warfare, engaging some of its embedded journalists for anti-Bangladesh propaganda. One among them is Subir Bhaumik, who has been fed with inside information by the Indian intelligence agency. This anti Bangladesh reportage had even veiled threat to Hasina to pull out from the Chinese orbit; else a military coup may unseat her.
So how do you see the situation moving from here, will India bring back Bangladesh under its umbrella?
In my opinion, Bangladesh is drifting along the lines of Sri Lanka and Nepal. All these countries do not want to do business with India as before. These neighbors are of the opinion that China is a much better option than India, as unlike the latter, the former is not known for playing the big brother vis-à-vis its smaller neighbors.
In conclusion, China’s growing influence on Bangladesh has neutralized much of New Delhi’s influence on Dhaka that once it wielded. India’s counter-offensive against Bangladesh in the arena of diplomacy is a history now. These developments have put Bangladesh in a bargaining position vis-à-vis India and China. India will try its best to wean away Bangladesh from Chinese sphere of influence. But from now onwards Dhaka may like to play hard ball with both India and China. It is a new script that is being written in Bangladesh – China – India relationship. This needs to be watched with more care and much caution.
(Note: Views expressed are authors own)