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China-Bangladesh Military Exercises Signal Shifting Geopolitical Landscape

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China-Bangladesh Military Exercises Signal Shifting Geopolitical Landscape

China has announced the first-ever joint military exercises with Bangladesh to be held early this month. Should India worry?

China-Bangladesh Military Exercises Signal Shifting Geopolitical Landscape
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Bangladesh and China will conduct their first-ever joint military exercises in early May.

Announcing the China-Bangladesh Golden Friendship 2024 joint exercises, Chinese Defense Ministry Spokesperson Senior Colonel Wu Qian said in Beijing on April 25 that the joint drill in Bangladesh, which is “based on United Nations peacekeeping anti-terrorism operations” will see the two sides participate in joint exercises “such as the rescue of hostages on buses and the clean-up of terrorist camps.”

China and Bangladesh have strong economic ties. Beijing has invested over $25 billion in various projects in Bangladesh, the second-highest in a South Asian country after Pakistan. It has played a significant role in building bridges, roads, railway tracks, airports, and power plants in Bangladesh. Bilateral trade grew from $3.3 billion in 2009-10 to over $20 billion in 2021-22. Importantly, a broad array of products from Bangladesh enjoys zero tariffs in China.

In addition, China has emerged as an important military ally of Bangladesh. It provided the Bangladesh Navy with two refurbished submarines in 2016 at a discounted price of $205 million. Moreover, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated a $1.21- billion China-built submarine base last year. Located at Cox Bazaar off the Bay of Bengal coast, the base can house six submarines and eight warships simultaneously. China’s bolstered relationship with Bangladesh, especially in naval cooperation, stems from the 2002 Defense Cooperation Agreement, covering military training and defense supplies.

The planned joint military exercises will deepen bilateral defense cooperation.

In China’s military strategy, engaging in international joint military exercises is viewed as a crucial aspect of utilizing military power abroad, categorized under what strategists term “non-war military operations.” These exercises, whether conducted bilaterally or multilaterally are commonly regarded as the “soft use” of “hard power” in the international arena.

The joint military exercises will be keenly monitored in neighboring India. ”We keep a close watch on all developments that happen in our neighborhood and beyond, which impact our interests, economic and security interests and we take appropriate measures accordingly,” Randhir Jaiswal, the spokesperson of India’s external affairs ministry said at a media conference in response to a question on the upcoming Sino-Bangladeshi joint military exercises.

Although Bangladesh and India have held 11 military drills between 2009 and 2023, the Sino-Bangladeshi exercises have raised several concerns over their implications for Bangladesh and India-Bangladesh relations. Is Bangladesh gradually distancing itself from India and seeking closer ties with China? Is it time for India to reconsider its relationship with Bangladesh? Will Bangladesh become a victim of Sino-Indian tensions?

“Bangladesh is being drawn into the cold war between India and China through this drill,” Altaf Parvez, a researcher on Southeast Asian history and politics, told The Diplomat.

“The Indian government has seen Pakistan as an enemy for a long time. It is now seeing China the same way,” Parvez said. With China trying to strengthen its military presence in South Asia, “the U.S. will push India to focus more on Bangladesh,” adding that the U.S. is “fueling” the hostility.

According to Parvez, Bangladesh shouldn’t join the military drills as it is a small developing country and doesn’t need such militarization. “It’ll only attract trouble from all sides.”

India and Bangladesh share strong cultural, social and economic ties. However, there are several issues of contention. Foremost among these is the longstanding bilateral river water disputes. There is also a significant trade imbalance between the two countries, which is in India’s favor. While this benefits India by boosting its long-standing ambition of globalizing the rupee for trade, Bangladesh gains little.

Then there is the question of a significant number of Bangladeshi nationals getting killed by India’s Border Security Force while crossing the border into India. This has made the India-Bangladesh border one of the deadliest in the world. Surprisingly, there have been no reported instances of Indian citizens being killed by Bangladeshi forces at the border.

While China’s relationship with Dhaka is growing from strength to strength, India’s role in Bangladesh is often criticized. Indeed, while traveling across Bangladesh, it is hard to miss the larger and growing Chinese economic presence in the country.

While China contributes significantly to economic development and infrastructure projects in Bangladesh, India wields substantial influence over Bangladesh’s internal politics. This influence has sparked a quiet “Boycott India” movement within Bangladesh, with the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) accusing India of supporting the ruling Awami League. Following a controversial general election on January 7 this year, which the BNP and several other opposition parties boycotted, reports emerged of India’s heavy-handed influence on the electoral process, allegedly involving deals with the U.S. and other Western powers to keep the Awami League in power.

On another front, Bangladesh currently hosts nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees following their flight from Myanmar in 2017. China has offered assistance in repatriating them to Myanmar, but the issue remains unresolved. Bangladesh may seek to engage with China on this matter through cooperation in military drills.

Although the armaments and submarines provided by China to Bangladesh don’t present an immediate security threat to India, India should take note of this as it strengthens China’s influence over Bangladesh, potentially affecting India’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

According to Monish Tourangbam, honorary director at the Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies (KIIPS), “Bangladesh is the most crucial node in the emerging geopolitics of the Bay of Bengal, which is not only a theater of India-China power dynamics but also that of the U.S.-China competition in the broader Indo-Pacific.”

He emphasized that “the China-Bangladesh joint military exercise, which will reportedly focus on counter-terrorism scenarios, will not rattle New Delhi immediately. However, India has a critical role in building a multipolar South Asia that believes in a consultative partnership with its neighbors amid China’s growing influence in the region.”

“Bangladesh, even the South Asia region, is obviously in need of development and infrastructure assistance, and China’s growing role is a reality that India should take note of,” he said.

China’s South Asian policy is ambiguous and has strategic designs that may harm partnering countries. Therefore, it is incumbent upon India to provide alternative modes of development assistance and infrastructure building in the region that are consultative, commercially viable and transparent. In this pursuit, India can augment its project vision and implementation, in partnership with other China-wary countries.

The announcement of Sino-Bangladeshi joint military exercises marks a significant development in regional politics. With China’s increasing economic and military engagement in Bangladesh, questions arise about its implications for Bangladesh’s relationship with India, as well as the broader geopolitical dynamics in the region.

While India holds significant influence over Bangladesh, China’s growing involvement in defense and infrastructure signals a shifting landscape. As China and India vie for influence, Bangladesh could get caught in the middle of this geopolitical competition.