As China draws Bangladesh closer into BRI embrace, India must step up efforts to secure its regional interests

Bangladesh became a part of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2016 and has seen its ties with Beijing grow exponentially in recent years

FP Staff October 05, 2020 14:42:30 IST
As China draws Bangladesh closer into BRI embrace, India must step up efforts to secure its regional interests

File image of Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina. AP

Xi Jinping's recent call for China and Bangladesh to jointly promote the multi-billion Belt and Road Initiative has only served to heighten India's concerns about the initiative.

With India's ties with its neighbours — even including Nepal — having been strained in the recent past, the prospect of Dhaka drawing closer to China is a worrying one.

Bangladesh became a part of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2016 and has seen its ties with Beijing grow exponentially in recent years. These are developments that India would be tracking closely for their ramifications in the neighbourhood.

Xi pitches for closer ties with Bangladesh

On Sunday, Xi Jinping said he stands ready with Bangladesh's leaders to better align the two countries' strategies and jointly promote the construction of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Xi made the remarks in an exchange of congratulatory messages with Bangladesh president Mohammad Abdul Hamid, on the 45th anniversary of the establishment of the bilateral diplomatic relationship.

In his message, Xi hailed the steady and long-term friendship, saying he is ready to work with Hamid to better align development strategies with Bangladesh. Further, he specifically said that China is seeking to step up cooperation under the framework of the BRI and push forward the China-Bangladesh strategic, cooperative partnership to a new level, according to official media.

Also on Sunday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang exchanged congratulatory messages with Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Li said in his message that China is willing to deepen practical cooperation with Bangladesh in various fields and promote the steady and sustainable development of the China-Bangladesh strategic partnership of cooperation to better benefit the two countries and their people.

For her part, Hasina said the strategic partnership of cooperation between Bangladesh and China has been developed from the two countries' time-tested friendship and cooperation.

The strengthened Bangladesh-China cooperation has unleashed enormous potential in maintaining peace, security and stability in the region and even around the world, Hasina said according to Xinhua News.

India's concerns on BRI

The BRI seeks to build rail, maritime and road links from Asia to Europe and Africa in a revival of ancient Silk Road trading routes. It is among Xi Jinping's top priority initiatives and aims firm up China’s global influence.

The initiative has, however, attracted allegations, especially from the US, of debt-diplomacy after Sri Lanka handed over its Hambantota Port to a state-run Chinese firm in 2017 for a 99 years' lease in a debt swap amounting to $1.2 billion. Malaysia has also deferred several projects under the BRI, citing cost revaluation.

The BRI, earlier known as One Belt One Road (OBOR), has been a major bone of contention between India and China as one portion of the corridor passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

Besides Pakistan, where China initiated over USD 60 billion as part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), China has stepped up its huge infrastructure investments in Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, sparking rising concerns about its growing influence in India's immediate neighbourhood.

An article in China Daily has quoted Sheikh Fazle Fahim, the president of the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry, as saying that BRI-related projects in the country have reached a value of around $10 billion. One of the major projects under the BRI is the Bangladesh Power System Upgrade and Expansion Project, which aims to provide electricity connections to over 2.5 million rural people.

India has consistently been critical of the BRI and has refused to join it. In 2018, India was the only country in the eight-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organisation grouping which opposed the initiative.

In his address at the summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a clear reference to the BRI, had said any mega connectivity project must respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the countries and assured that India will support projects which ensure inclusivity.

Possible strategies

Although Bangladesh under Sheikh Hasina has broadly had warm relations with India, New Delhi has good reason to view the involvement of Dhaka in the BRI with concern. As of now, none of the projects that China is executing in Bangladesh have strategic implications, as an article in The Diplomat states. However, India would need to closely track present as well as future projects under the BRI in Bangladesh in order to secure its strategic interests.

Delay in bilateral negotiations between India and Bangladesh also presents the danger of alienating the latter country. Among the issues which have seen such a delay is the water-sharing deal on the Teesta river. The Bangladesh government is now considering a proposal from China on the management and restoration of the Teesta river, according to an article in Scroll.

The Quad — which consists of India, Japan, Australia and the US — also presents an opportunity to counter China's rising influence through BRI. However, as an article in Observer Research Foundation notes, "The Quad nations will have to present their own model if only to underscore the normative differences between the Chinese and their approach. China with its BRI is providing a new economic template to the world, and it is important for those powers which view Beijing’s approach as top-down, opaque and self-serving to pro-actively provide credible alternatives."

As China forges closer ties with Bangladesh through the BRI, India needs to work both on maintaining good ties with Dhaka and also countering the influence of the initiative through strategic alliances.

With inputs from PTI

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