Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Chinese Ambassador’s unprecedented “interference” in Bangladesh’s domestic affairs

Daily Sun
Sunday, 25th August, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

The Chinese Ambassador in Dhaka Li Jun, unlike his western colleagues, pursues diplomacy more in the traditional way. Recently the Foreign Minister had called the Ambassadors/High Commissioners in Dhaka to the Foreign Minister to remind them in a rather candid manner that they should not cross the limits while talking publicly of Bangladesh’s internal matters. The caution was based on a correct interpretation of the Vienna Convention of Diplomatic Relations that prohibits diplomats from interfering in the host country’s internal affairs in return for many privileges of which diplomatic immunity is the major one.

Foreign Ambassadors, particularly those who provide aid to Bangladesh, have never believed that the Vienna Convention applied to them in Bangladesh although their countries are all signatories to the Convention. They have liberally spoken on our internal affairs, often embarrassing the government and sometimes also the nation. In this respect, one country whose Ambassador has diligently remained well within the restrictions of the Vienna Convention has been the Ambassador of China. I am not aware of the Chinese Ambassador ever speaking on our politics in public since diplomatic ties were established after the change of government in 1975.

It was therefore a great surprise that the Chinese Ambassador had broken that long and self-imposed silence, finally. In an event organized to honour the medical ship Peace Ark’s 7-day visit to Bangladesh to provide medical assistance to the common folks, the Chinese Ambassador Li Jun chose to speak on the current political situation in the country where the lack of agreement between the ruling party and the main opposition BNP on how to conduct the next national elections is threatening to push the country towards great uncertainty. The Ambassador asked the two mainstream parties to engage in “face to face’ negotiations that he thought “would be of great help.”

Those who know the Chinese way of conducting foreign affairs and diplomacy would be as surprised as some of us were who have interacted with the Chinese in our diplomatic careers.  In the Chinese way of conducting diplomacy, the last thing that an Ambassador would be allowed to do in his/her place of posting is indulge in the internal affairs of the host country not because the Vienna Convention prohibits it but because the Chinese do not believe that is the correct way of conducting relations between nations. Furthermore, China unlike some countries in our neighborhood and elsewhere, believes in relations with the country and not with or through any particular political party in that country that often encourages foreign diplomats to interfere in our politics.

The Chinese are very conscious of diplomatic niceties. In fact, China conducts its foreign relations in a manner where it treats a country’s government and the opposition almost on the same footing. Both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia know this from first hand experience. Both have visited China as the leader of the opposition and both know that on these visits, they were shown honour and dignity no different from what they were shown when they visited China as Prime Minister of Bangladesh. In fact, when Khaleda Zia visited China last year at the invitation of the Chinese Communist Party (in the Chinese system, the Communist Party whose power is as much if not more than the government that deals with opposition parties in foreign countries) she held discussions with the Chinese leaders as if she was representing the government of Bangladesh.

The Chinese Ambassador did not follow his western colleagues when he spoke on Bangladesh’s internal affairs.  He spoke on the deep crisis facing the country without being offensive to any of the stakeholders. He showed respect to both the mainstream parties by urging them to negotiate directly without apportioning responsibility. He also showed respect to the people by stressing that in the final analysis “it is for the people of Bangladesh to resolve their own problems.” The Ambassador left no one in doubt that it was China that was making the request to the mainstream parties and the people of Bangladesh as a “close and traditional friend “ interested in the country’s stability and development in which it is a partner.

The language and emphasis in the Ambassador’s statement apart, it understated unequivocally the concern in Beijing about the way Bangladesh is sliding. He made the statement not while responding to any journalist. He read it out of a written text that underscored that every word in the statement was made on instruction of his government. In that context, it would be important to also consider that the Ambassador’s statement left no doubt that China would like the two mainstream parties to end the political deadlock trough negotiations so that the country would have “ fair and transparent elections where all parties will participate,” and “no one (will) disagree to have elections”.  The hopeful hint in the statement was that the Ambassador felt that the two parties were already engaged in negotiations and that he may be aware of certain things that others, perhaps even his western colleagues, and the people may not be aware.

The Chinese Ambassador’s statement is also important because his country has the ability vastly superior to those of many Ambassadors who speak on our politics like they were the final authority. Bangladesh-China two-way trade is worth US$ 10 billion and Bangladesh’s exports to China are growing faster than the other way around. China is Bangladesh’s main supplier of military hardware. Further, Bangladesh-China bilateral relations are free of even minor issue/s of disagreement.  China is an emerging Super Power with major interest in Bangladesh and the region and enjoys friendly relations with both mainstream parties and most important of all, the people of Bangladesh, otherwise so divided politically, are unanimous about their friendly feelings towards China.

All these factors make the statement of Ambassador Li Jun a matter of some optimism among the people at  a time when they are worried and afraid of the great deluge that the politics of the country is brewing up for the nation. Perhaps, the Chinese who are not known to play politics in bilateral matters, are taking measures behind the glare of the media and the public to help a friendly nation in whose stability and development it has its own interests embedded, find its way out from sliding to the brink. Perhaps, that was the message that the Chinese Ambassador gave with his extremely unusual statement on Bangladesh’s internal affairs.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador. His email

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