Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jul 18, 2019
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit enhances China and Bangladesh relations

With Prime Minister (PM) Shiekh Hasina's visit to China from 1  to 5  of July this year, the relations between China and Bangladesh got a noteworthy boost. This was PM Hasina’s first visit to China after she formed the government for the third consecutive term in January this year.  Bangladesh being a strategic partner of China, PM Hasina’s visit attracted global attention. China and Bangladesh forged a strategic partnership in 2016. During the visit, PM Hasina was warmly received   by the Chinese leadership as red carpet was rolled to welcome her. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang hosted a special dinner reception in honour of PM Hasina. Meetings were held with President Xi Jinping and the two leaders discussed issues of bilateral importance. The visit was the consolation of the bonhom ie the two countries share.

The immediate outcome of the visit was the signing of nine bilateral agreements in the areas including aid for the Rohingyas, economic and technical cooperation, investment, power, culture, and tourism.

The immediate outcome of the visit was the signing of nine bilateral agreements in the areas including aid for the Rohingyas, economic and technical cooperation, investment, power, culture, and tourism.

The agreements signed between them are: Framework Agreement of Expansion and Strengthening of Power System  under Dhaka Power Distribution Company (DPDC) Area project; Concessional Loan agreement of Expansion of Strengthening Power System Network Under DPDC Area project; Framework Agreement of Power Grid Network Strengthening Project; Agreement on Technical  and Economic Cooperation; MOU on establishment of  investment cooperation working group; MOU  and its implementation plan on hydrological information sharing of Yalu Zhangbo/ Brahmaputra River; MOU on Cultural Exchange and Tourism Programme. Besides, the two countries agreed on China providing 2500 tonnes of rice for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

A joint statement was issued during the visit that outlined details of the discussion held between the two countries. The areas that gained priority in the discussion were- trade and investment, maritime, defence and security, people-to-people connectivity, climate change, maritime cooperation, climate change, science etc.  Significant highlights of the discussion that merits notice  are:

China and Bangladesh agreed to hold a dialogue on maritime affairs and further explore ways and means to cooperate on Blue Economy, maritime management, marine spatial planning, joint ocean observation among other.

Additionally, the two countries expressed commitment to deepen cooperation under Belt Road Initiative (BRI) and work implementing the Bangladesh, China, India Myanmar (BCIM) Economic corridor. BCIM is a quadrilateral initiative that connects China’s Kunming with Kolkata in India via Bangladesh and Myanmar.  China later declared the initiative to be under BRI. It is worth to note India has been critical of BRI and refrained from participating. Through BRI China is funding various infrastructure project in various countries to expand its influence globally.

Once more, the two countries reiterated the commitment to enhancing defence cooperation. Further, they expressed interest in cooperating on counter-terrorism in areas like -sharing of information, capacity building and training.

The two countries have agreed to enhance cooperation in areas like agriculture, science and technology, climate change also. China committed to establishing a Climate change centre in Bangladesh for promoting high productive corp.

Stressing on the importance of promoting people-to-people connectivity for the relationship, China pledged to continue providing various scholarships to Bangladeshi youth. In addition, China announced to fund outstanding Bangladeshi young scientist to work in China.

The visit coincided at a time when PM Hasina is presently facing two major challenges- a) repatriation of the Rohingyas, b) sourcing funding to sustain development in the country, based on which she rode to victory in this election.  Ahead of the visit, media in Bangladesh claimed trade, investment, and the issues of repatriation of the Rohingya refugees will be the centre of discussion between PM Hasina and Chinese leaders.

Repatriation of Rohingya refugees is a major foreign policy challenge for PM Hasina. Rohingyas have been residing in Bangladesh since August 2017 after they fled to escape persecution in their home in Rakhine in Myanmar. Efforts by the international community barely yielded any outcomes. Popular feeling in Bangladesh is China by dint of its warm relationship with Myanmar can help to resolve the Rohingya crisis.

Similarly, PM Hasina pledged to transform Bangladesh into a developed country by 2040. The country is in a desperate need of investment in order to attain this goal. China’s robust economy inspired Bangladesh to lean for investment.

Moreover, Bangladesh’s exceptional relationship with China added to rise in expectation. Bangladesh recognises China as a trusted ally and an all-weather friend.  Initially, China and Bangladesh relations were not smooth. China was against the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971. The two countries, however, resolved their past. Today, China is Bangladesh major supplier of defence arms and the largest trading partner and a major developmental partner also.

Notably, ‘apolitical’ image of China is the strength of the relationship. China’s role in Bangladesh has been to be able to develop friendly ties with all political parties, a necessity in a country like Bangladesh famous for its divisive politics that influences foreign policy too. The country’s relationship with India that shifts with the change in the ruling party are a case in point.  China has been successful in garnering a consensus among the political parties in Bangladesh about the relationship.This benefits the relationship substantially. As Bangladeshi leaders could comfortably deal with China without fearing any political backlash at home. It is worthy to note, ruling Awami League’s warmth with China increased in past few years. Especially, after China supported the 2014 election boycotted by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

The visit displayed warmth and positivity between the two countries. China overwhelmingly declaring Bangladesh as its major partner in South Asia marked the depth of the bond the two countries share.

Perhaps, it is this bond that restrained the country’s media to microscopically analyse the outcome of the visit, which normally observed vis-à-vis India. Nevertheless, apprehension expressed about the extent of China’s ability to fulfil Bangladesh’s expectation, especially, on the Rohingya issue.  China expressed an intention to help Bangladesh in resolving the Rohingya refugee problem but however there still remains a feeling of doubt. Reason for concern arises because of the experience of Myanmar’s dillydally attitude in implementing the agreement on the repatriation of Rohingya. In 2017, Bangladesh and Myanmar signed the agreement after China’s intervention. Myanmar has not taken back a single refugee until now.

China expressed an intention to help Bangladesh in resolving the Rohingya refugee problem but however there still remains a feeling of doubt. Reason for concern arises because of the experience of Myanmar’s dillydally attitude in implementing the agreement on the repatriation of Rohingya

Once more, there was some feeling of disappointment regarding the absence of declaration by China on specific measures to reduce the trade imbalance. The trade imbalance is a major issue between Bangladesh and China. Bilateral trade heavily favours China.  During the visit, China recognised the need for reducing it and expressed its intention to support export from Bangladesh but remained vague on the measures. Meanwhile, Sheikh Hasina invited Chinese companies to invest in Bangladesh in 100 of the economic zone the country is developing. A special economic zone is being set up for Chinese companies near Chittagong in Bangladesh. Chinese investment forwarded as an alternative to address the trade gap.

During the visit, PM Hasina requested faster disbursement of the loan and making conditions easier. In 2016, China promised US$28 billion lines of credit to Bangladesh for development of various infrastructure development project; however, there have been major delays in disbursement on the fund. It is worthy to note, in South Asia, Bangladesh is the second-largest recipient of Chinese loans after Pakistan.

China and Bangladesh relations always have a reference to India, an aspiring global power and Bangladesh’s neighbour, and this visit was no different. During her visit, PM Hasina participated in the summer summit of the World Economic Forum in Dalian. In her speech,she was categorical in defining her country’s relations with India. To PM Hasina, the relationship of Bangladesh with India is organic while with China, it is economic.  Additionally, PM Hasina opined that she wants to maintain a balanced relationship with all her friends including China and India.

It will be noteworthy to watch Bangladesh’s foreign policy evolve in the future. Especially with respect to China displaying tendencies to leverage its loan diplomacy to assert its influence. Bangladesh has to show prudence in navigating Chinese pressures to sustain its neutrality.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Joyeeta Bhattacharjee

Joyeeta Bhattacharjee

Joyeeta Bhattacharjee (1975 2021) was Senior Fellow with ORF. She specialised in Indias neighbourhood policy the eastern arch: Bangladeshs domestic politics and foreign policy: border ...

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