When Narendra Modi was elected to the office of prime minister for the first time in 2014, he invited his counterparts from Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Maldives, and Bhutan to his swearing-in ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. The move set Modi’s “Neighborhood First” policy in motion, shifting Indian foreign policy’s focus toward its neighbors. It was a highly appreciated Indian foreign policy initiative toward regional connectivity and cultivating cross border relations.
Now, the ongoing China-India conflict could reverberate in the geopolitical dimensions of South Asia, leading to new relations in the region. Contrary to beliefs that rivalry between China and India makes the relations with other neighbors vulnerable, Bangladesh emerges as a curious case. Bangladesh — with its strategic geopolitical location, population, markets, and manufacturing prowess — could grasp an opportunity from this ongoing conflict.
India and Bangladesh share the fifth-longest land boundary in the world. It has long been important for India to maintain a positive working relationship with Bangladesh to bolster security and border management. It has also been pertinent for China as well to maintain a welcoming relationship with Bangladesh – both to ensure trade benefits by using Bangladesh’s ports and to keep a check on India as well.
The India-Bangladesh relationship goes back to the birth of Bangladesh. India was the first country to recognize the sovereignty of Bangladesh and establish diplomatic ties in 1971. Beijing began its diplomatic relations with Dhaka in 1976. China-Bangladesh relations began as a process of comprehensive cooperation for trade, economic cooperation, and technology exchange.
Historically, India and Bangladesh have maintained close relations. In 2014, when Modi was elected in India, a diplomatic fall-out was assumed. However, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina continued to maintain close ties with India, and both the heads of government worked toward strengthening their bilateral agreements and diplomatic ties. This could be witnessed through the number of high-level visits. During Modi’s state visit to Bangladesh in June 2015, 22 bilateral agreements were signed, including the resolution to a border issue that had existed since 1947 through a successful land boundary agreement (LBA). India also pledged $5 billion worth of investments in Bangladesh. During Sheikh Hasina’s four-day visit to New Delhi in April 2017, a civil nuclear tripartite pact was signed between India, Russia, and Bangladesh, in which India will play an important role to establish a nuclear power plant in Bangladesh. In March 2019, Narendra Modi launched four projects in Bangladesh.
On the other hand, China was deepening relations with South Asian countries to form and maintain its hegemony in South Asia. That meshed well with Bangladesh’s “Look East” policy, which is essentially designed to lessen Dhaka’s dependence on India and open up new avenues of cooperation with China and Southeast Asia. China replaced India as the top trade partner in Bangladesh in 2015. As a member of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Bangladesh has received Beijing’s support — including through 27 agreements signed when President Xi Jinping visited Bangladesh in 2016. The investments were worth around $24 billion. With the sole exception of Bhutan, which does not have diplomatic relations with China, all of India’s other neighbors have joined the BRI.
Meanwhile, India’s otherwise solid relationship with Bangladesh turned sour after August 2019, when Indian government completed the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the northeastern state of Assam. NRC is meant to verify citizenship and rule out illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Over 1.9 million people were left out of the Assam NRC, creating concern for Bangladesh over the possibility of a sudden influx of people forced out of the Indian state. When the Indian home minister mentioned a plan for an all-India NRC in the Indian parliament, it caused waves of anxiety for Bangladesh. More subjectively, conflating the terms “illegal migrant” and “infiltrator” with “Bangladeshi” hurt the sentiments of Bangladesh.
In October 2019, when Hasina visited New Delhi, she was assured that NRC is an internal matter of India and the final scenario on the issue is yet to emerge. During this visit, a total of seven pacts were signed between India and Bangladesh, including agreements on setting up joint coastal surveillance systems, improving air, rail and road connectivity, and securing the international border.
In December, a new citizenship law, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019 followed the India-wide NRC announcement. This act, in brief, provided Indian citizenship to persecuted religious minorities from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan who had entered India by December 31, 2014. This brought a new concern for Bangladesh, as India indirectly implied the poor treatment of religious minorities in Bangladesh and brought negative publicity for Dhaka. A feeling of detachment formed between India and Bangladesh. The much-protested new citizenship law in India also saw protests in Dhaka ahead of Modi’s scheduled visit in March 2020 (which was eventually scrapped due to the COVID-19 pandemic). This was the first time that people of Bangladesh protested against the Indian prime minister. The rising tensions over the new citizenship law pushed the public consensus of Bangladesh toward China.
Now, amid the China-India conflict along their shared border, Bangladesh could leverage gains from both sides.
It is safe to say that Bangladesh is tilting toward China. Recently, Beijing granted duty free access to 97 percent of Bangladeshi products effective from July 1. Bangladesh has also recently requested from China an infrastructure fund worth $64 billion. This request was made through the Investment Cooperation Working Group with China, which was established last year.
In addition, China has offered help and much-needed medical supplies to Bangladesh in order to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic on the condition that Bangladesh will agree to form sister city alliances with Chinese cities. These alliances are considered a tool to develop people-to-people relations across borders by promoting commercial and cultural relationships. China has also stated that Dhaka will be a priority should Chinese researchers develop a vaccine against the new coronavirus. This was reiterated by Hualong Yan, the deputy chief of mission at the Chinese Embassy in Dhaka, who said, “Of course, Bangladesh is our important friend and Bangladesh will surely get priority.”
Meanwhile, India is also in process of ramping up its relations with Bangladesh. In his wishes for Bangladesh on Mujib Barsho, Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan said, “As we are also looking at creating a new economic partnership for the future, there are opportunities to go beyond trade in goods and look at the trade in services.” The minister also mentioned that India is prepared to further assist Bangladesh in mitigating the health and economic impact of the pandemic.
With their ongoing conflict, both India and China will seek to expand their influence in Bangladesh, but so far China has offered the best card to Bangladesh. While some Indian commentators panned China’s offer as “charity” for Bangladesh, Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen rejected criticism of the Chinese deal. At a time when India is losing its relations with neighboring countries, instead of mocking Dhaka’s relations with another country, India must double its efforts to sustain the long friendship with Bangladesh.
Mozammil Ahmad is an independent researcher currently pursuing an LL.B at the University of Delhi.