The changing dynamics of geopolitical realities in South Asia has now brought Bangladesh in the fold. The nation that came into being in 1971 partly with India’s help, has enjoyed close ties with its neighbor ever since. The countries share close cultural bonds and even closer geographical positions. Sharing one of the world’s longest land borders; with such close, historical and physical proximity, both countries have long-established well-developed relationships that are now being tested. This shift in the relations comes alongside China’s successful economic diplomacy in gathering allies in South Asia, with Beijing and Dhaka currently developing strong bilateral ties.
India has been the major economic partner of Bangladesh in terms of trade concessions; however, China has gradually shifted the equilibrium in recent times. In the wake of COVID-19, China offered tariff exemptions on over 97 percent of Bangladeshi exports. It helped to balance the impending trade deficit with China in the light of the pandemic. Simultaneously, China’s economic influence was evident when it gained control of all the big construction projects, which ultimately led to its outbidding India in acquiring a significant stake in the Dhaka Stock Exchange. Moving over the economic stronghold, China extended its military services in constructing Bangladesh’s first submarine base and becoming countries biggest arms supplier. On another front, China is also taking over India’s soft power influence in Bangladesh. The Chinese cultural footprint has been laid with the set-up of Mandarin learning centers and the opening up of Confucius institutes. Amplified with military and medical aid, it has helped establish China’s positive image in the media and the public’s eyes.
This developing relation with China comes when Bangladesh’s relations with India have reached its all-time low. While on the surface level, bilateral ties between both countries have always been amicable; however, the ground reality is much different. Much of the public opinion revolves around seeing India as a patronizing ally. According to a media outlet, “They don’t believe that we are independent,” “They interfere in everything. They think our bureaucrats work for them,” reports a Bangladeshi journalist. These grievances have been mainly felt due to the numerous anti-Muslims policies being propagated by the Indian government. The controversial citizenship law Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that New Delhi ordained has been addressed with severe criticism in Bangladesh’s Muslim majority region. Following this, several visits between corresponding ministers with Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina were called off, deeming the bill as “not necessary.” In comparison, China is supported by the Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League party and the opposing Nationalist Party. Both the ruling and the rival party see the potential that Chinese help can strengthen economic growth.
It is part of a much broader picture; it is a mere tipping point in the more massive game between two regional powers. China and India have been tiptoeing around South Asia’s regional dynamic for quite some time; with the ongoing stand-off in Ladakh, the tension for regional dominance has reached unprecedented levels. Bangladesh’s inclination towards China also presents an opportunity for Pakistan to redefine its bilateral ties with Bangladesh. The recent phone call between Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s and Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been discussed in Indian media. The conversation between the PMs indicated that Bangladesh is open to maintaining relations with China and establishing new ones with its ally Pakistan. Though their history shadows Pakistan and Bangladesh relations, it is likely that China’s growing economic and diplomatic influence in both the countries might bring both the nations closer once again. Both Pakistan and Bangladesh have shown interest in reconciling to fight the common enemy of climate change as both countries fall under the ten most vulnerable countries to climate change according to the Global Climate Index 2020. A bilateral corporation against climate change would pave the way for both countries to put their differences aside and work towards a collective goal for the whole region.
At a glance, it would seem Bangladesh has much to lose by tipping its scale towards China, however seeing the current geopolitical situation, it would seem it is India that cannot afford to lose Bangladesh as its ally. Then we may back India, but it is left with no partners in its immediate vicinity. On its west, it has a border with Pakistan while in the northeast faces the Nepal crisis. Given the scenario, it would seem Bangladesh holds not just strategic importance for India as much of its northeast communication is dependent upon Bangladeshi territory. Still, it is also vital for India as an ally for diplomatic ties in its South Asian region as it has managed to antagonize the rest of its neighbors.