Diversifying strategic partnership between Dhaka and Beijing

The dyna­mics of ties between Bangladesh and China has intensified in its diversity through greater connectivity within the sub-regional and regional paradigms. Bangladesh’s “Look East Policy” and greater linkages through the One Belt One Road initiative (BRI)- that Bangladesh joined during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Bangladesh in October, 2016- has opened doors within this matrix. These factors have generated endeavors towards cooperation in diverse areas.

Many Chinese political and educationist leaders have visited Dhaka over the last three years. Senior members of the Bangladesh government as well as political leaders from different political parties, including the BNP, have also travelled to China within the last four years. 

This process has now been taken forward with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s latest visit to Beijing in the first week of July. This has not only demonstrated growing Chinese understanding of seemingly intractable issues being faced by Bangladesh but has also demonstrated  Chinese willingness as a partner to assist Bangladesh in being able to overcome existing challenges.

China’s presence in the global arena has become a source of anxiety for some countries. Their pragmatic, progressive and outward-looking policy has also transformed connotations related to the geo-strategic paradigm in South-east Asia, South Asia, Middle-east, Europe and Africa. This has now also stretched across the Pacific into parts of Latin America.

It is this factor that has persuaded Bangladesh to intensify its approach in underlining to the Chinese government and also to the Chinese political authorities the growing importance of Bangladesh within the sub-regional and regional context, particularly within South Asia. The need to reinforce the bilateral relationship and collaborating more on key issues were the two primary reasons the Bangladesh Prime Minister’s recent visit to China.

Sheikh Hasina started her visit through her participation in the “Summer Davos” meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) held in Dulian, China from 1 to 3 July. Here she shared her views on different current issues that have grabbed the attention of the world’s socio-economic community and the civil society. She met many leaders from different sectors and had discussions on how to cooperate more meaningfully through mutual trust in overcoming existing challenges and also other difficulties emerging in the horizon. These included facets related to environmental challenges, regional competition, economic disparities and technological adaptations. Their attention was also drawn to the fact that these were introducing misunderstanding, instability and fundamental differences of opinion about resolution of these factors. She also reiterated Bangladesh’s position that greater effort needs to be addressed towards removing difficulties within the global economy and in the reshaping of companies and communities in different countries that are taking place at an unpreceden ted speed and scale- thanks to digitalization.

After her inter-active engagement at the WEF, Prime Minister proceeded to Beijing. There were several dimensions in Beijing- all significant within the ambit of Bangladesh-China bilateral relations. There were meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang, discussion with the Chinese Foreign Minister and important members from the Chinese Communist Party leadership.

On 4 July, several important economic Instruments were signed between representatives from the two countries. Four Instruments dealt with- Framework Agreement of Expansion and Strengthening the Power System Network within the Bangladesh DPDC Area; Framework Agreement of Power Grid Network Strengthening Project under PGCB; Agreement on Economic and Technical Cooperation between the two governments and Memorandum of Understanding on the Establishment of Investment Cooperation Working Group. The External Resources Division of Bangladesh also signed two Agreements with the Export-Import Bank of China. One related to a Government Concessional Loan Agreement of Expansion and Streng­thening of Power System Network under DPDC Area Project and Preferential Buyer’s Credit Loan Agreement of Expansion and Strengthening of the Power System Network under the DPDC Project.

A MOU was also signed with regard to the Implementation Plan pertaining to provision of Hydrological Information related to flow of the Yarluzangbu/Brahmaputra River between the Ministries of Water Resources of Bangladesh and China. Another MOU was signed on Cultural and Tourism Exchange Programme between the Chinese Ministry of Culture and Bangladesh Ministry of Cultural Affairs. The last was a Letter of Exchange related to the Rohingya Refugees Rice Aid which was signed between the Disaster Management and Relief Ministry of Bangladesh and China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA). Under this Letter China will provide 2,500 metric tonnes of rice as assistance for the displaced Rohingya people who have fled the Rakhine State of Myanmar and taken shelter in Bangladesh.

At the same time there was in-depth discussion on economy, prospects of Chinese investment in Bangladesh and the existing scenario pertaining to bilateral trade. This was assisted through a number of economists and representatives from the Bangladesh manufacturing and trade sector. FBCCI played an important role in this regard. The potential role of the BCIM corridor was also discussed. Hasina also sought Chinese assistance for implementing the Delta Plan 2100, setting up of a Climate Adaptation Center and also in the mobilizing of resources for implementation of the Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration Project.

The Chinese Prime Minister noted that in the recent past volume of trade between China and Bangladesh had witnessed a 16 per cent growth. In response the Bangladesh Prime Minister very correctly, in her response, stressed on the need for China to address this growing trade imbalance and the massive trade growth in favor of China. In this regard she pointed out that China needs to undertake more investment in Bangladesh, develop factories and industries with the “buy-back guarantee” principle in operation. Such investment, she pointed out, could be undertaken within the Special Economic Zones network that was being created within several parts of Bangladesh.

Analysts have since her return pointed out that focus in this regard could be given to products that are in demand in China amongst consumers. It has also been suggested that the first step could be to not only diversify the range of Bangladeshi manufactured products in the Ceramic, Leather and Pharmaceutical sectors but also within the processed Agricultural products sector. They have also underlined that a careful study needs to be made in this regard. If so required, financial incentives also need to be provided for those entrepreneurs who will be associated with this task.

During discussion at different levels, Prime Minister Hasina drew the attention of the Chinese leadership, including that of the Chinese President to the need for restoring stability within the south-eastern areas of Bangladesh adjacent to the several camps that had been created in and around the Cox’s Bazar District to provide space for the more than one million Rohingya refugees who had entered Bangladesh as illegal immigrants fleeing arson, rape and murder in their villages located in the Rakhine State in Myanmar. She pointed out that Bangladesh’s hospitality had been provided as part of human rights welfare. However the objectionable activities of the Myanmar law enforcement agencies and sections of the extreme Buddhist community had not been held as accountable by the Myanmar government.

This unfortunate trend was now having an osmotic effect and creating anger and instability among those who had fled Myanmar and sought sanctuary in Bangladesh. Delay in the repatriation of these Rohingya citizens was affecting the matrix of development in that sub-region and also playing havoc with its environment. It was also affecting national security and encouraging trafficking of drugs and people. Such a situation, quite naturally was not acceptable not only to Bangladesh but also to the displaced people. This was worsening the continuing crisis. It was also underlined that such a scenario could also affect the potential of connectivity that had led to China and other countries seeking to take advantage of investment potential in that region of Myanmar being a gateway to the Bay of Bengal.

She also drew the attention of the Chinese leadership and reiterated to them that “the only solution to this crisis remained in the return of the Rohingyas to their homeland”. In this context she drew their attention to the fact that Bangladesh had engaged in bilateral arrangements and undertaken different efforts for the repatriation of the Rohingyas but the displaced people do not want to return to Myanmar as they are afraid of such a possibility. Sheikh Hasina, quite justifiably, then urged China and its leadership to play a constructive role in creating a congenial environment in the Rakhine State in Myanmar that would provide safety, dignity and citizenship to the displaced Rohingyas.

It would be pertinent to recall that in 2017 when the Rohingya exodus started from Myanmar into Bangladesh in August, Sheikh Hasina in her statement during the UNGA Session had asked Myanmar authorities to implement the recommendations made by the Kofi Annan Commission. However this was never done. It would also be appropriate to mention here that many countries of the world, including the European Union, Canada and the USA have also strongly sought Chinese and Russian support in this regard. Institutions like the UN Human Rights Council, the UNHCR, the ICRC, the IOM and the OIC have also strongly recommended that solution of this problem lies in active persuasion of Myanmar by China, Russia and India. 

It appears that the Chinese leadership has assured Prime Minister Hasina that they would “try to” persuade Myanmar to resolve the Rohingya crisis through “bilateral discussions”. The Chinese governing CPC leadership including Song Tao, the CPC Minister for International Affairs has also stated that “We will contact with the Myanmar political leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, to solve the Rohingya problem amicably.”  President Xi has also indicated to Sheikh Hasina on 5 July before her departure for Dhaka that there should be a quick solution to the 

Rakhine crisis.

One can only hope that the coming two months before the next session of the UNGA will witness a movement forward in the right direction.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.