Bangladesh-China: Respective Objectives and Strategies

30 May, 2014    ·   4476

Dibya Shikha analyses Dhaka and Beijing's respective motivations for the increasing engagement between Bangladesh and China

Dibya Shikha
Dibya Shikha
Research Intern
On May 12, Bangladesh and China signed four military treaties, increasing the warmth in the existing bilateral ties between the two countries. What did Bangladesh gain by aligning with China? Why is China interested in Bangladesh? Where is the bilateral headed towards?

What did Bangladesh Gain by Aligning with China?
Recently , the Chinese military delegation led by Chief Marshal of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force General Xu Qiliang visited Bangladesh and signed four military deals via which China will provide military assistance, including training and logistic support, to the Bangladeshi armed forces for no charge. 

Over the years, the two countries have signed a number of bilateral agreements that include military sales, trade and transit, and cultural exchanges. In March 2014, two new navy frigates – Abu Bakar and Ali Haider – were commissioned from China. In April 2014, both countries agreed to a deal on the sale of two submarines to Bangladesh which is a part of Dhaka’s plan to develop the Bangladeshi navy into a “three dimensional force.” A submarine base is to be established at Kutubdia Island in Cox’s Bazar district for the type 035G diesel-electric Ming Submarines, scheduled to reach Bangladesh by 2019. 

A 2014 report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute stated that China was the biggest supplier of arms to Bangladesh between 2009 and 2013. The Report claimed that Bangladesh bought anti-ship missiles, tanks, fighter aircrafts and other arms from China, resulting in China being the source for 82 per cent of Bangladesh’s total arms imports during the period. 

Lucrative financial arrangements and lower costs are Bangladesh’ reasons for sourcing arms from China. For Bangladesh, limited funds for defence expenditure have resulted in arms procurement becoming more of an economic calculation than strategic one. China allows Bangladesh to purchase arms on credit and soft loans. While the general understanding among Dhaka’s diplomatic analysts is that the army is unhappy with the quality of Chinese arms, that no country can deliver goods as cheap as Beijing can, is undeniable.

Recently, Beijing and Dhaka have engaged in quite a few major projects. The two signed a Memorandum of Understanding for constructing a 1,320 MW power plant in Bangladesh’s Moheshkali sub-district. Bangladesh is also considering a Chinese proposal for constructing a deep sea port at Sonadia Island; and Dhaka’s first foray in space, via the launch of the Bangabandhu Satellite was with China’s infrastructural and investment cooperation.

Additionally, enhancing economic and transport cooperation between both the countries, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC) and other regional groupings have made a significant progress.

Why is China Interested?
Bangladesh has become conscious of non-traditional security threats such as piracy, natural disasters and increasing competition for energy in the Bay of Bengal region, resulting in a dire need for Dhaka to develop naval infrastructure. China happily grabbed the opportunity to enter the maritime space of the Bay of Bengal via the modernisation of Chittagong port. For Bangladesh, it was significant, given that the port was the ‘lifeline of trade’ – as 80 per cent of the country’s imports enter via this port. 

Furthermore, the BCIM-EC is significant for power connectivity in the region too. Bangladesh is more important for China due to its immense unexplored natural gas reserves, cheap labour, and untouched market.

However, two contesting viewpoints illustrate China’s growing cooperation with Bangladesh. On the one hand, it is claimed that China is involved in a ‘shadow war’ through enhancing Bangladesh’s military and naval infrastructure for countering the US and India in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). On the other hand, China is said to be interested in getting access rather than establishing bases. China does not have access to the strategically important IOR; but, by means of economic and military deals with Bangladesh, it gets entry and passage into the busiest commercial sea lines of the world. 

Where is the Bilateral Headed Towards?
The second official level joint working group meeting of BCIM-EC, scheduled to be held in Chittagong, in June, is an illustration of Dhaka’s significant positioning in the grouping. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been invited to attend the second China-South Asia Exposition scheduled to be held in Kunming, China, early in June, in order to expand trade and business ties between the two countries. 

A Strategic geographical location has made Bangladesh a strong player in regional politics, and Beijing, by establishing a closer comprehensive partnership with Dhaka, is attempting to fulfil its own agenda. A good momentum in the development of the bilateral is mutually beneficial to both countries. Bangladesh’s defence procurement, economic and transit deals with China are an effort to promote trade liberalisation, investment facilitation and securitisation of the border for Bangladesh, and enhancing ties with Dhaka is easy way for Beijing to gain influence in the South Asian region.

Hence, in the changing regional security environment where China is emerging as a giant in the economic and strategic sectors, Dhaka cannot afford to be a reluctant friend; and, in the near future, entering into a strategic alignment with China will become unavoidable for Bangladesh.