Against the backdrop of several recent geopolitical realignments, including the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific strategy, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and persistent tension between India and China, Bangladesh’s relationship with China has been growing significantly.
So how and why did Bangladesh become close to China? And what does this growing relationship mean for India and the U.S.?
A pivotal moment in the Bangladesh-China relationship was in 2012, when the World Bank in a publicly issued statement accused Bangladeshi government officials of engaging in corruption in a mega bridge project over the River Padma. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina took the Bank’s allegation as an attack on her prestige and sought Chinese help to complete the project.
Inaugurated in 2022 and built at a cost of $3.6 billion, the Padma Bridge now connects 21 districts in southwestern Bangladesh to the capital Dhaka. The Padma Bridge project is an example of Bangladesh’s hunger for development projects coinciding with the Chinese ambition to expand its strategic footprint in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh’s interest in Chinese involvement in its infrastructure projects is that they –-and to some extent Indian development projects too—adhere to a lesser extent of regulatory compliance in comparison to Western, especially American, projects. They are less expensive as well. Therefore, these projects are lucrative and preferred by Bangladeshi officials and politicians.
In recent years, China’s footprint in Bangladesh has grown significantly.
In 2016, Bangladesh joined the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Awami League government reportedly prioritized 17 projects including the construction of power plants, railway lines, roads, a river tunnel, the modernization of ports, and the development of information and Communication Technologies. Bangladesh’s defense ties with China have grown too; China accounted for 74 percent of Bangladesh’s arms imports in the 2015-2019 period.
U.S. pressure on Bangladesh’s Awami League government to improve its poor human rights record and hold a free and fair election has also pushed Hasina closer to China.
While U.S. policy toward Bangladesh under President Joe Biden is widely supported by Bangladeshi human rights advocates, opposition parties, the public and critics of the Awami League government, China — like India — has supported Hasina. In 2023, when Hasina met Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sideline of the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, Xi reportedly told her that China would oppose external interference in Bangladesh and would deepen economic cooperation with it, reassuring her that she could rely on China against U.S. pressure.
In 2021, when the Biden administration did not invite Bangladesh to its democracy summit, the then-Chinese envoy to Bangladesh Li Jiming came out in support of Dhaka.
When Biden announced his Indo-Pacific strategy, there was pressure on Bangladesh to come on board. It put Dhaka in a quandary as the Chinese had made it clear that they were opposed to Bangladesh joining the U.S. initiative. China publicly stated in 2022 that “Bangladesh should avoid cold war mentality and bloc politics,” discouraging it from joining the Quad.
Bangladesh eventually published its own Indo-Pacific Strategy, one premised upon non-alignment, indicating that it is not ready to take sides in the U.S.-China geopolitical rivalry and against China. Bangladesh has reiterated often that it is a supporter of the one China policy and that it believes Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, a position that contrasts with the U.S., which sees Taiwan as a key Indo-Pacific partner.
Bangladeshi critics of the ruling Awami League say that the latter’s governance is inspired by the Chinese model, where political competition is not present, elections are reduced to a procedural application, freedom of speech is limited and narratives of infrastructural development overrides protection of human rights.
This stands at odds with the U.S. vision for the Indo-Pacific as outlined by U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh Peter Hass, who recently said in Dhaka that the U.S. believes that people throughout the Indo-Pacific region want democracy and their human rights to be respected. “By championing democracy, human rights, and open dialogue, we pave the way for a region that not only endures but thrives,” Haas said.
Therefore, one could argue that while Bangladesh officially does not take either side in the Indo-Pacific, by downplaying the importance of democracy and human rights it is essentially taking a side that is at odds with the U.S. vision for the Indo-Pacific.
While the fading health of Bangladesh’s democracy has evoked little concern in New Delhi, Sino-Bangladeshi cooperation in general and some defense and infrastructure projects in particular have set alarm bells ringing in India. The $1.2 billion six-slot China-built submarine base, named BNS Sheikh Hasina, which is located near Cox’s Bazaar could have security implications for Indian naval bases nearby.
However, Hasina’s government has repeatedly conveyed to India that China is Bangladesh’s economic partner and not a security partner and that India has nothing to worry about the expanding Chinese footprint in Bangladesh.
Besides, Chinese-built infrastructure in Bangladesh could benefit India.
As Imtiaz Ahmed, professor at the Department of International Relations at Dhaka University told The Diplomat, “Chinese investment in Bangladesh serves India’s interest well.” Chinese investment, Ahmed said, is “focused on improving Bangladesh’s connectivity and a more developed and well-connected Bangladesh would be good for India too as India uses Bangladeshi land and waterways to transport Indian goods from the mainland to Northeast India.”
Critics have raised concerns that Chinese development projects in Bangladesh could drive the latter into a debt trap like Sri Lanka. However, according to Professor Shahab Enam Khan at the Department of International Relations at Jahangir Nagar University, there is little chance of it falling into a Chinese debt trap because the return on investments is much higher than the cost of funds.
Besides, China is not Bangladesh’s only or its main lender. Bangladesh has diversified the sourcing of its loans. Of the current “$72.3 billion foreign loan, the World Bank accounts for $18.2 billion, followed by the Asian Development Bank ($13.3 billion), Japan ($9.2 billion), Russia ($5.1 billion), China ($4.8 billion) and India ($1.02 billion),” according to Bangladeshi Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen.
There is a possibility of Bangladesh going deeper into the Chinese orbit after the next election, which in the view of many observers will not be inclusive and free as the AL wants to cling to power and will use the state apparatus to ensure this.
The Hasina government may not be able to sustain its snubbing of the U.S. for long as U.S.-Bangladesh ties are multi-dimensional and deeply rooted in people-to-people contact. Bangladesh needs both China and the U.S. but only one of these countries is pushing Bangladesh towards democracy and that is not China.
Bangladesh appears to be bidding to exploit the great power rivalry in its favor, but it may be a tough game for Hasina to win.