Chinese Foreign Minister’s Bangladesh Visit: Context and Contingencies

The Chinese Foreign Minister is set to visit Bangladesh on 6-8 August. Bangladesh and China are primed for signing a multitude of MoUs and agreements during the Chinese Foreign Minister’s official visit. While the list of the deals hasn’t been stipulated, it can be around five-seven – which includes cooperation in the realm of disaster management and cultural interaction, to further bolster the present dynamics of the relationship between two countries.

The official visit of the Chinese foreign minister comes in a watershed moment of global geopolitical, economic, and strategic dynamics. The rivalry between US-China is surging, evident from the recent turf between the two countries regarding Taiwan. The global strategic rivalries have been reincarnated as had been manifested in the breakout of an unceasing Ukraine-Russia war. Hence, the prevailing political milieu can be explained as an era of heightened great-power rivalries, which has jeopardized the policy autonomy of the relatively smaller powers. This has been embodied in the intensifying efforts by the great powers in incorporating the relatively weaker states into their sphere of influence, which impinges on the sovereignty of the smaller states. Against this backdrop, the Chinese Foreign Minister’s official visit needs to be comprehended from the lens of this effort, as the U.S. also engaged in a series of overtures to Bangladesh since the breakout of the Ukraine war, which indicates the fervent attempt of the U.S. in registering support of Bangladesh.

Moreover, the visit bears discernible geostrategic overtones. Firstly, Bangladesh — underpinned by its geographical proximity to the Bay of Bengal and the Indo-Pacific — has assumed salience in great power’s calculation. This enhanced importance has propelled great powers to bid for Bangladesh’s attention, to leverage the geographical significance of the country to reinforce their grand schemes. Secondly, Bangladesh’s tilt to any particular power invokes ire from its rival power, thus compounding Bangladesh’s delicate balancing in the face of heightened great power rivalries. Thirdly, this has led the great powers to accord paramount importance to Bangladesh and woo Bangladesh into their orbit through a mix of diplomatic and generous largesse.

A flurry of visits from top officials of the United States and China need to be construed by the great powers’ bid in subsuming Bangladesh to their respective camps. Nonetheless, both the United States and China prudently cultivate the narrative of cooperation and friendship, to reassure these countries of the equity of the engagement. Besides, both the countries caution against any engagement with other blocs, and take preemptive measures for averting any attempt toward overt tilting. A series of examples of Bangladesh’s interaction with the great powers demonstrate this trend in Bangladesh’s relations with the great powers.

Background of the Bilateral Relations

Despite the bitter relationship between Bangladesh and China due to the dubious role of the latter in Bangladesh’s emergence, the relationship later gathered momentum based on shared interests. China has cemented itself as one of the staunch allies in the defense sector. However, the relationship has gained impetus after president Xi Jinping strode to power. Firstly, President Xi’s much-vaunted “Belt and Road Initiative” had contemplated Bangladesh as a lynchpin and Bangladesh has been an important part of the BCIM. The BRI framework had given renewed urgency to the development of harmonious relations predicated upon economic development. Subsequently, the visit of Xi Jinping in 2016 had attended with a plethora of investments in different sectors of Bangladesh, which has catalyzed Bangladesh’s infrastructure development and hence contributed to the economic development of Bangladesh. Xi Jinping was the first Chinese president who visited Bangladesh in the last 30 years, which underscores the newfound relevance of Bangladesh in China’s foreign policy calculation.

However, this development partnership between Bangladesh and China, later metamorphosed into a strategic partnership, propelled by China’s rise as one of the formidable global powers. Thus, the engagement flourished between the two countries in the realm of defense, infrastructure, and economic cooperation. China’s relationship with Bangladesh has been always shaped by China’s intention to offset its relative power discrepancy in South Asia, a region that is dominated by India’s preponderance and increasing attention of the United States.

What to Expect from the Visit

The visit might witness the signing of a series of Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with particular emphasis on cooperation in the realm of disaster management and accelerating people-to-people interaction between two countries. Due to the shared vulnerability of extreme climatic events as well as the relative success of China in ameliorating the risk, the experience of China can hold considerable lessons for Bangladesh to emulate China to fortify its disaster management process. Thus, the visit will set the tone for the cooperation between the two countries in the arena of disaster management,  Besides, the previous years have witnessed China’s mounting displeasure regarding Bangladesh’s deepening ties with both India and United States, which is reflected in China’s attempt in preemptively avert Bangladesh’s membership in Quad by the questionable remark that inclusion into Quad will have damaging ramifications on bilateral relations. Later, China cautioned Bangladesh to shun “bloc” politics. The visit of the Chinese Foreign Minister will further underscore these anxieties of China and will reveal attempts by China to extricate Bangladesh from bloc politics. 

Besides, the lingering Rohingya crisis has become a veritable security threat for the South Asia region, which might destabilize the whole region, holding back the goals and aims of numerous Chinese development projects. However, despite recurring assurances, China remained aloof from the exigencies of the crisis, perhaps China is cautious in not endangering relations with Myanmar. However, the prolonged Rohingya crisis attenuated Chinese interests in the region. Thus, the Rohingya issue will feature prominently in the visit, as Bangladesh might seek robust actions from China for the swift resolution of the Rohingya crisis.

The Cautionary Tale for China

China has recently sought to browbeat into capitulation of its demand, as reflected in China’s increasing assertive rhetoric that dictates Bangladesh refrain from bloc politics. However, this is not realistic in a multiplex world order and is at odds with China’s homily about refraining from the Cold War mentality. The overt dictating of one country by another defies the minimal respect for the sovereignty of the country, which is reminiscent of the Cold-War international order.

Hence, China should respect the sensitivities of Bangladesh. Besides, any disenchantment of Bangladesh will be seized on by China’s adversaries, resulting in Bangladesh’s alignment against China, which will deprive China of its flimsy foothold in Bangladesh. Therefore, any engagement between two countries needs to be premised on bilateral cooperation and consensus, not unilateral dominance. 

[Photo by Cancillería Ecuador, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

*Kazi Asszad Hossan is a Researcher at Central Foundation of International and Strategic Studies(CFISS). The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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