Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Sino-Bangladesh relations: Need for vision

Published in Daily Sun, 9th., November, 2010
M. Serajul Islam

There was news in the media recently that Foreign Minister Dipu Moni had postponed her China visit on health ground. There was no news afterwards whether that visit has been rescheduled. In the absence of any information on the issue, questions have arisen in minds of many whether the visit was postponed on medical grounds alone.

Sino-Bangladesh relations had a very unhappy beginning. China opposed Bangladesh’s liberation and had held up its UN candidature for quite a while at a time when it was extremely important for it to have that membership. Following the changes after 15th August 1975, China established diplomatic ties with Bangladesh and also facilitated Bangladesh’s entry to the UN by withdrawing its veto. In the next three and a half decades, Sino-Bangladesh relations developed from one level to another in excellence. In the process, every aspect on which a country builds a relationship with another, like trade, economics, defense cooperation ; people to people contact, etc., have been brought into the Sino-Bangladesh relations with many agreements/protocols providing the framework for conducting these relations.

Although Bangladesh and China have not built a strategic partnership in the formal sense; there has never been any doubt that India has always been a factor in jelling their bilateral relations. In 1988, when Bangladesh faced one of history’s worst floods, General Ershad brought the point home in a dramatic way. He asked India through diplomatic channels to take back the helicopters that it had provided for dealing with the flood telling the Indians that there was no need of helicopters anymore. At the same time, in fact the same day, the President requested China on the national TV for helicopters to deal with the flood.

President Ershad visited China five times during his tenure to underscore the importance China gave Bangladesh. There were high level visits from China during this period including one from the Chinese President. There were reasons for China to please Bangladesh. First, Bangladesh had the opening to the Bay of Bengal in which China was interested for strategic reasons, including the need for a deep seaport for economic purpose that it hoped Bangladesh would build. Second, China in those days was also interested in the ongoing insurgencies in the Seven Sisters of India and Bangladesh was ideally located for furthering such interest. Third, China also had its problems with India. Fourth, China viewed Bangladesh with its large population as a potential market for its businesses. Finally, China perceived India as a competitor to its ambition to become a regional power and for that it needed Bangladesh (and other countries in South Asia) as an ally.

Although the end of the Cold War that also saw the return of elected government in Bangladesh changed many equations of international relations, Bangladesh-China relations remained warm. When the AL came to office in 1996, Sheikh Hasina accepted China’s invitation for a visit that was her first overseas trip when she was barely in office a couple of months, the party’s historical ties with India notwithstanding.

Bangladesh’s foreign policy practitioners did not fully comprehend the changes in international politics of the time, particularly the fact that some of the reasons that had made it attractive to China were losing their edge. They also failed to realize that Myanmar could give more to China, and in fact doing so, on the strategic issues than Bangladesh.

While these changes/developments were taking place, the BNP made a blunder in 2005 by allowing Taiwan to open a trade office without taking China into confidence. The office was opened at a time when elections were taking place in Taiwan and thus the most inopportune time to give such permission. It also cancelled a Chinese aided project DAP 1 that was signed in the final days of the AL government unilaterally that angered China very much. When the AL came to office in January, 2009, China’s eagerness for a relationship with Bangladesh based on special considerations had mellowed substantially. On coming to power, the AL also gave China cause for disappointment when it failed to take China into confidence while changing the name of the China-Bangladesh Convention Centre that China had fully funded.

The AL Government also made overtures to reach out to India that it did not last time. It made dramatic concessions on land transit and security during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s “state visit” to India in January this year. In the Joint Communiqué, Bangladesh agreed to support India’s candidature for membership in an expanded Security Council although the issue is not even current in UN affairs. The strong words of support sent a clear message to Beijing about Bangladesh’s regional preference.

Bangladesh has painstakingly built its relations with China over many decades starting when China was a developing country to a position where it plays a dominant role in international politics and economics today. To lose China’s interest now or a mellowing down of the earlier warm relations would be losing out on benefits out one of the most successful pursuits in the foreign policy initiatives of Bangladesh, namely building with China excellent bilateral relations.

It is Bangladesh’s prerogative as a sovereign nation to get close or distant to and from any nation for pursuing its national interests. So China cannot have any qualms about what Bangladesh does with India. Nevertheless, Bangladesh should keep in mind that it befriended China for leverage against India. China reciprocated warmly towards Bangladesh also because of the India factor. Thus if Bangladesh would like to improve relations with India now, the least China would expect is to take a time tested friend into confidence. Today, as a responsible world power, China is no longer interested in meddling in India’s internal affairs. The two countries are also patching up their bilateral problems. Hence, India to which Bangladesh has made exceptional overtures for friendship that it has never done before would also not have any reason to worry if Bangladesh had taken China into confidence on moving ahead with it. Bangladesh foreign policy practitioners have not shown enough maturity in handling its relations vis-à-vis India and China for it does not appear that they have taken China into confidence. The time it took to invite Sheikh Hasina to Beijing this time underscores Chinese disappointment.

The Bangladesh Foreign Minister’s visit to Beijing would have answered questions in the public mind about China’s present perception about; whether Bangladesh has played away the strategic value of China for promises from India. The forthcoming visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka and what offer he brings for Bangladesh on its water sharing; trade and maritime boundary demarcation problems would also help clear a lot of uncertainties. If the Indian Prime Minister fails to offer major concessions to Bangladesh on the outstanding problems, the public would be convinced that Bangladesh has indeed played away its cards with India and in the process, lost the warmth of China.

China conducts foreign policy on long term perspective. It is also not in the habbit, as some major powers are, of abandoning a tested friend like Bangladesh. Thus whatever Manmohon Singh offers us or does not, Bangladesh should deal with China with vision and while trying to improve relations with India, do so with China on the loop. Between the BNP in its last term and the AL so far, Bangladesh has shown no such vision. One just hopes that China would understand if Bangladesh showed the vision.

(The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies)

No comments: