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Can China profit as Bangladesh turns from India?

July 30, 2020

Although Bangladesh is a traditional ally of India, New Delhi's controversial citizenship law has strained relations. Other regional powers are now taking advantage of the rift to gain a foothold at India's doorstep.

Bangladeschs Premierministerin Sheikh Hasina trifft Chinesischen Präsidenten Xi Jinping 2014
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Zhao/Pool

India and Bangladesh share vital economic ties, along with a cultural and historic bond that is currently being tested by diplomatic rancor over New Delhi's controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

The CAA has been heavily criticized in Muslim-majority Bangladesh as stoking demographic tensions between Muslims and Hindu's as part of a Hindu-nationalist agenda from the government of Indian Premier Narendra Modi.

Passed in December 2019, the CAA provides a fast track to Indian citizenship for non-Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Bangladesh's prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has said the bill is "not necessary" and several bilateral visits between ministers have been called off following the bill's approval. Despite repeated requests, Hasina has reportedly not met with High Commissioner of India to Bangladesh, Riva Ganguly, in four months.

"Considering the close relationship between these two countries, often described as the 'golden age' by leaders of both countries, it is quite unusual that the Indian envoy has not had an audience with the PM for such a long period," Ali Riaz, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Illinois State University, told DW, adding such snubs are a way to send a message of discontent.

Read more: India's top court rules against immediately suspending citizenship law

Hasina's government is also upset that the CAA implies that Bangladesh's Hindu community, around 9% of the country's population, is no longer safe in the country.

"Dhaka resents how the law suggests that Bangladesh discriminates against religious minorities and worries that the law could prompt large numbers of Muslim migrants from Bangladesh to pour back into Bangladesh," South Asia analyst Michael Kugelman at the Wilson Center in Washington, told DW.

An opportunity for China?

Bangladesh's souring relations with India come as China is trying to build a network of allies in South Asia, and Beijing and Dhaka have been increasing cooperation in many sectors.

China recently announced a tariff exemption for 97% of Bangladeshi exports, amounting to some 8,200 products having duty-free access to the Chinese market.

Bangladesh: 'We're balancing our ties with China and India'

China, which is the top source of foreign investment in Bangladesh, has been pouring money into infrastructure projects in Bangladesh as part of Beijing's Belt and Road initiative.

Chinese developers also received a contract to build a new terminal at Bangladesh's Sylhet airport near the border with India's northeastern state of Assam.

Read more: Is Bangladesh falling into a Chinese 'debt trap'?

This comes as Indian-sponsored projects in Bangladesh have reportedly slowed since Hasina was elected in 2019, while more Chinese projects are popping up.

"Beijing knows full well about the recent India-Bangladesh tensions over the citizenship law, and it has smartly seized that opportunity by offering Bangladesh some new benefits for its exports – in an effort to push even closer to Dhaka," said Kugelman.

Analyst Riaz said it is still too early to determine if Bangladesh's shift towards China will be permanent, or if PM Hasina is trying to send a message to India.

"Is she sending a message to New Delhi to renegotiate the terms of the relationship or is she trying to satisfy the growing anti-Indian sentiment in Bangladesh to benefit politically?" said Riaz. "Either way, Beijing benefits."

Read more: India aims to woo Bangladesh away from China

Pakistan using Bangladesh to irk India?

Indian arch-rival Pakistan has also been taking steps to improve ties with Bangladesh, and a phone call last week between Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan's and Hasina, drew attention in Indian media.

Indians protest Citizenship Amendment Bill

Although the conversation was not received with alarm, experts said Pakistan wants to take advantage of the current rocky state of relations between New Delhi and Dhaka.

"Pakistan is trying to reach out to Bangladesh and not the other way around," Siegfried O. Wolf, an analyst at the Brussels-based think tank South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF), told DW.

"The latest call between the two prime ministers should not be interpreted as drifting apart of New Delhi and Dhaka, but rather as part of Bangladesh's government to balance its relations between India and China."

Wolf added that any substantial rapprochement between Islamabad and Dhaka depends on Pakistan's willingness to acknowledge the "genocide" it conducted in former East Pakistan, today's Bangladesh, during the 1971 war of independence.

Read more: Is Pakistan supporting Bangladeshi Islamists?

The Bangladesh government says Pakistani forces killed 3 million people during the war. Bangladeshi Foreign Minister A K Abdul Momen has also said that Pakistan must accept that it carried out genocide in Bangladesh if it wants to improve ties with Bangladesh.

However, it's highly unlikely that Islamabad will take that step.

"Islamabad, much like its ally China, is aiming to capitalize on India's struggles with Bangladesh," said Kugelman.

"There's a long way to go before we can start talking about a normalization in Pakistan-Bangladesh ties, but the phone call between Hasina and Khan is an important first step."

A new policy for Bangladesh?

Experts agreed it is too early to predict a permanent shift in Bangladesh's foreign policy in siding with China and Pakistan over India, and that the small country should be careful with depending on larger partners.

"It is not a matter of affordability but of the political will of the ruling Awami League party," Riaz said, adding that leaning exclusively on one country has high political costs.

"Bangladesh's 12 years of India-centered policy has amply demonstrated this," he added.

"We should remember that Beijing is not a benevolent hegemon, it has its own regional agenda with implications for Bangladeshi domestic politics."

Read more: China's New Silk Road faces resistance from India, partners

DW Arafatul Islam Multimedia Journalist
Arafatul Islam Multimedia journalist focusing on Bangladeshi politics, human rights and migration.@arafatul