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13. November 2016 7 13 /11 /November /2016 23:12

Will Xi Jinping's visit to Bangladesh be a regional game changer?

Mahfuz Anam

How much of a game changing impact will Chinese President Xi Jinping's recent visit to Bangladesh, 30 years after the last such visit, have on politics of this region and beyond?

What will be the impact on the ground of the signing of Memorandum of Understanding (MoUs) for 34 projects amounting to an impressive USD 24.45 billion and a commitment of another USD 13.6 billion?

This is by far the strongest Chinese expression of confidence in this rising South Asian country. Unquestionably, the visit by Mr. Xi marks a watershed moment in Bangladesh-China bilateral relations, signalling a remarkable transition of ties that started from very shaky grounds in 1971, when China sided with Pakistan. China formally recognised our independence only years later after Pakistan and Saudi Arabia did the same, after the assassination of the founder of the state Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in August 1975. The fact that his daughter and the country's current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina deliberately overlooks these facts of history is a testimony to the rising importance that Bangladesh attaches to its relations with China, and her personal commitment in it.

So how much of a game changer is this new relationship between Bangladesh and China?

Internally, it marks a significant shift in our politics.

Traditionally it used to be the main opposition group, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) that was known to work for closer relations with China, primarily to counter Indian influence. On the contrary, the present ruling party, the Awami League, clearly preferred India for its closest ties, which was rooted in the latter's all out assistance in our freedom struggle resulting in nearly four thousand Indian soldiers laying down their lives for Bangladesh's freedom.

All that appears to be a distant past now.

On security, India biggest concern, Bangladesh has been very cooperative in removing all terrorist camps of Indian separatists groups that previously existed along our border. Connectivity through the Asian Highway and the Trans-Asian railway projects are now the priority visions of both the countries. The Asian Highway projects involve 32 member countries and the network extends from Tokyo in the east to Kapikule, Turkey, in the west, and from Torpynovka, Russian Federation, in the north, to Denpasar, Indonesia in the south. The Trans-Asian railway initiative, on the other hand, involving 28 countries, seeks to improve rail connectivity within Asia and between Europe and Asia. After her return to power in 2009, Sheikh Hasina has consistently shown a keen interest in developing close relations with China even as she made vigorous efforts to win India's confidence.

Some trade issues still remain to be resolved. Issues relating to the sharing of water of more than 50 rivers that flow between our two countries still remain largely unsolved, with sharing of water from Teesta River being the most urgent.

Simply put, given the troubled past of Bangladesh-India relations, the present is qualitatively different. And it is at this moment of Bangladesh-India relations that Bangladesh's relation with China is reaching unprecedented levels of cooperation and trust. Nothing would suit Bangladesh better than to be able to continue as presently conceived.

But the crucial question is how will India, given its troubled past, take Bangladesh's warming relationship with China that the visiting President termed as a “strategic partnership”?

To Bangladesh's great relief, and diplomatic success, India has not reacted negatively, at least in public. However, it will be naive to expect that India will not have any reservations about it. Internally, Sheikh Hasina's government is in no position to upset India too much on account of China.

But the distance she has already covered in coming closer to China has impressed most of her critics and the international observers of South Asian politics.

To move further in this direction Sheikh Hasina will need all her diplomatic skills and persuasive powers. India's sudden, yet not too unexpected, deterioration of relations with Pakistan, and China's reassertion of its historic close relations with Pakistan may alter everything. The continuing cross border terrorism, which is destabilising Kashmir, makes for a tinderbox like situation in South Asia, with the possibilities of war at any time.

China's new scheme of rebuilding the historic Silk Route under 'One Belt, One Road' (OBOR) project has not been fully welcomed in India though Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Maldives have already signed up and Bangladesh welcomed it during Xi Jinping's visit. Some Indian think-tanks have termed the 'OBOR' as China's project to increase its sphere of influence and bring India's neighbours under its fold.

However, it has to be noted that bilateral trade between these two Asian giants have grown over the years and reached nearly USD 100 billion.

What role will the United States play in this new equation?

Given the rising tension over conflicting claims in the South China Sea, America's increasingly negative view of rising Chinese maritime strength and Japan's demands for tougher action against Chinese stance on the issue, the pressure on Bangladesh could mount to be less enthusiastic about getting close to China.

So the all important question is how will the rising friendship between Bangladesh and China work out, given that Dhaka's closeness with New Delhi is at an all-time high?

Bangladesh needs all the assistance it can get and India cannot for the moment match China in terms of the funds that Bangladesh needs. Bangladesh's one and only goal is development and it needs both India and China.

We have successfully stayed out of big power politics and regional power rivalry. We cannot and should not get even remotely involved with the bilateral problems of any other country. Bangladesh must pursue her own agenda for development and peaceful and cooperative relations with all, especially the two Asian giants, on whose development successes Dhaka must traverse.

The writer is Editor and Publisher, The Daily Star, Bangladesh.

This is a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers across the region.

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