Dhaka, Bangladesh – Strenuous efforts by Bangladesh to court China are being seen as a snub to the West after vocal criticism of elections that brought Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina into office earlier this year.
Analysts say a high-profile visit to Beijing by Hasina, in which she pledged to be an “active partner” in a “China-led” century, was aimed to reinforce an already-cosy relationship.
The latest diplomatic manoeuvres will not go unnoticed in neighbouring India under its new Hindu nationalist leader Narendra Modi, who has blasted what he calls China’s “expansionist” motives.
“New Delhi is naturally going to be sceptical about the outcomes of the visit,” said Professor Muhammad Shahiduzzaman of the international relations department at the University of Dhaka.
“But they will also understand that the prevailing government in Bangladesh can survive if China aids them through economic development.”
Bangladeshi businessmen have lauded a raft of deals and commitments agreed during Hasina’s six-day visit to China, which ended in mid-June.
After the parliamentary elections on January 5, Sheikh Hasina's manoeuvrability is limited, particularly when it comes to the US and the European Union.
These include a joint venture to establish a 1,320 megawatt coal-fired power plant, an economic and technical cooperation agreement, and commitments on disaster rescue equipment and on a flood prevention and management study.
The two countries signed a memorandum of understanding on the creation of a Chinese economic and investment zone in Chittagong, Bangladesh’s main deep-sea port, and discussed construction of a highly anticipated second port at Sonadia, a tiny island in the Bay of Bengal sea.
Sonadia may emerge as a major regional trade hub as it provides sea access to China’s Yunnan province, India’s landlocked northeastern states, the Himalayan nation of Nepal, and Bhutan.
China has been widely tipped to win the Bay of Bengal contract, but Hasina told journalists: “There are a lot of proposals from different countries. We will choose those who can do it in the shortest time.”
Both countries have also agreed to commemorate in 2015 the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations at events throughout the year.
Abdus Salam Murshedy, the former president of the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association, told Al Jazeera that although bilateral trade was about $10.3bn last year, it tilts heavily towards China.
“Bangladesh’s exports to China are slowly increasing,” he said. “Last year, we exported $100m-worth of goods to the country.
“China is going to be the largest export destination in a decade’s time. It is going to be good for Bangladesh if we can have China tag with us in more infrastructure and investment projects.”
For 40 years, Dhaka has maintained strong ties with China, which has been a major partner in Bangladeshi defence procurement, and communications and infrastructure projects.
But foreign relations analysts in Dhaka see the latest trip as part of an effort by Hasina to strengthen ties with countries that do not share Western concerns about the legitimacy of her government, such as China, Russia, and Japan.
Observers say it represents a strategic manoeuvre by Dhaka in response to criticism in the US and European Union to parliamentary elections in Bangladesh in January, which were boycotted by the opposition.
After violence marred the polls and amid allegations of widespread electoral fraud, the US and EU described the results as “not credible”, and Washington has become a vocal critic of the human rights situation in the South Asian country.
This means the recent visit to China by Prime Minister Hasina is about more than just business, said Imtiaz Ahmed of the international relations department at the University of Dhaka, making Beijing a “predictable” destination.
“After the parliamentary elections on January 5, Sheikh Hasina’s manoeuvrability is limited, particularly when it comes to the US and the European Union,” he told Al Jazeera. “China is not so much bothered about Bangladesh’s governance.”
Shahiduzzaman added: “The prevailing government in Bangladesh is looking for its own legitimacy to survive.”
He said because China, Japan, and Russia are not particularly concerned by the election outcome or governance in Bangladesh, “we are most likely going to see better relations with these nations”.
During a visit by Hasina to Japan earlier this year, Tokyo pledged to lend Bangladesh up to $5.8bn for infrastructure and other projects over the next five years. Russia has also signed a deal to build the country’s first nuclear power plant in Rooppur, 200km northwest of Dhaka, which is expected to be operational by 2020.
New Delhi watching
India has been paying close attention to Dhaka’s latest diplomatic offensive with newspapers such as The Hindu reporting in detail about Hasina’s visit to China.
If China is granted Sonadia’s deep-sea port project it will gain “further access to the Indian Ocean, and an alternative route for energy imports,” it noted.
Ahmed said: “Fortunately, India’s relationship with China has also improved over the past few years.
|Bangladesh national elections were marked by widespread violence [EPA]|
“We need to wait and see what Mr Modi will do in the coming months as far as ties with Bangladesh and China are concerned.”
During the recent campaign for national elections that delivered Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a landslide victory, he repeatedly protested immigrants from Bangladesh crossing the border into India.
Shahiduzzaman said India was likely to negotiate access to the port at Chittagong to help move goods into its northeast.
“While curbing the anti-Bangladesh rhetoric, I believe the BJP government in India is likely to press for transit in Bangladesh more aggressively than the past Congress government had done,” said Shahiduzzaman.
He added that in return, Bangladesh is likely to seek ratification of an agreement on border restrictions and the resolution of water-sharing and other issues with India.
Bangladesh is preparing for a three-day visit from June 25 by Sushma Swaraj, India’s external affairs minister, for talks likely to focus on these issues.