On August 17, the Bangladeshi government signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with China’s Sinopharm and Bangladesh’s Incepta Vaccines Ltd. under which the local vaccine manufacturer would produce 5 million export-quality Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine doses per month. The deal is a significant one. Not only will it help Bangladesh address its vaccine shortage but also with this, China has made deeper inroads into the South Asian country. It kept a low profile and bided its time, and when opportunity opened up, it acted swiftly to strike the vaccine deal with the Bangladesh government.
China has strong ties with Bangladesh. It has been Dhaka’s biggest partner in infrastructure building over much of the past decade and has funded and implemented multi-million dollar projects in Bangladesh.
Still, the Bangladesh government has adopted a cautious approach toward China.
It blacklisted China Harbor and Engineering Company for attempting to bribe officials and rolled back a $1.6 billion highway project. Out of the 27 MoUs signed in 2016 between the two countries as part of the Belt Road Initiative, only five were implemented until 2019. In 2020, China agreed to invest approximately $7 billion in nine big infrastructure projects but Dhaka has received only $1 billion so far.
Bangladesh has a history of being financially prudent. It is careful with borrowing as it is keen to avoid being drawn into a debt trap. In effect, it has thwarted a powerful tool of diplomatic coercion that China has wielded against its economic partners.
Underlying Dhaka’s cautious economic engagement with Beijing is a deep-rooted fear that it could go Sri Lanka’s way and fall into a debt trap. Hence, its extreme caution in getting into deals with China.
Beijing fully understands that it can only go so far with Dhaka, and has therefore resorted to building sustainable “secondary” regional frameworks to court Bangladesh, like the China-South Asia Emergency Supplies Reserve and Poverty Alleviation and Cooperative Development Center. Meanwhile, it waits for the “opportune moment.”
In Bangladesh, Beijing has realized that it cannot expect foreign policy success without respecting Bangladesh’s sovereignty and its right to conduct its international politics in the way it wants to.
In May this year, Chinese Ambassador to Dhaka Li Jiming warned Bangladesh against joining the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the Quad. Joining this “club” would “substantially damage” Sino-Bangladesh relations, he said.
Bangladesh responded swiftly. Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen reminded China that Bangladesh is “an independent and sovereign country” that sets its own foreign policy. China was “overstepping” its limits by “trying to dictate what we should or should not do.”
China, which does not take reprimand or criticism lightly, remained silent in response to Momen’s comment. So why did Beijing retreat? The answer is India.
Bangladesh has strong relations with India. The two countries worked together during the 1971 liberation war. In addition to cultural and kinship ties, the two are cooperating in an array of fields including counterterrorism cooperation.
An observation made by Momen last year on the nature of the bilateral bond captures the nature of the India-Bangladesh cooperation. Bangladesh shares “blood ties” with India, he said, pointing out that with China, Dhaka’s relationship is purely economic. The two cannot be compared, Momen said.
China’s “wolf warrior diplomacy,” its aggressive positions on geopolitical issues and attempts at territorial expansion seem to indicate that Beijing is moving away from Deng Xiaoping’s “tao guang yang hui” (translates to “leave brightness, embrace obscurity”) philosophy of international conduct.
However, a close look at Sino-Bangladesh relations points to a different story. Indeed it suggests that many experts may have got “tao guang yang hui” wrong.
Former Chinese diplomat Yang Wenchang once wrote that “tao guang yang hui” is deeply rooted in Chinese culture and refers to low-profile behavior, cool-headedness, intricate planning, and hard work. Wenchang also said that it defines China’s strategic thinking where diplomats are calm, attentively observe global changes, and prepare to seize any opportunities that might arise to further the country’s far-sighted goals. Wenchang’s interpretation of “tao guang yang hui” provides context to China’s engagement of Bangladesh.
China did not react too aggressively to Bangladesh’s cancellation of BRI projects or the Bangladeshi foreign minister’s reprimand. Rather, it kept quiet and bided its time.
In due course, opportunity opened up when India halted vaccine exports in March this year to meet domestic demands for vaccines at the height of its second COVID-19 wave.
Although India and Bangladesh had signed an agreement under which India was to supply the latter with 30 million vaccine doses by mid-2021 it received only 9 million doses, before India abruptly stopped exporting vaccines.
The move not only jeopardized the lives of nearly 1.5 million Bangladeshis who had received their first jab but also, it brought to a halt Bangladesh’s mass vaccination campaign that began even before Canada and the European Union procured any vaccines.
Dhaka repeatedly requested India to provide it with at least enough vaccines to administer the second dose to its people. But its requests fell on deaf ears in India.
It was at this point that China swooped in. It swiftly offered 100,000 vaccine doses as a gift with an option to purchase more. Since March, Bangladesh has received 9 million Sinopharm doses from China, with an additional 1.1 million doses as a gift. Dhaka resumed its countrywide vaccine from July while simultaneously agreeing to procure a total of 60 million Sinopharm vaccines.
Meanwhile, the United States and Japan are trying to match China’s growing vaccine diplomacy. The U.S. has decided to send both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to Bangladesh. Until now, Dhaka has received roughly 5.5 million doses from the U.S. as a gift, with 6 million more promised to be delivered by December this year under the World Health Origanization-led COVAX initiative.
Bangladesh has also received 1.6 million AstraZeneca doses from Japan under COVAX, with another roughly 1.5 million doses due for delivery.