China’s economic diplomacy destined to fail in Bangladesh

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March 27, 2021

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By Mahmudur Rahman, Editor, Amar Desh UK

Beijing appears to conclude that there is no end in sight of Sheikh Hasina’s despotic rule in Bangladesh. She has succeeded in silencing all dissenting voices by cruel application of state apparatus. Since 1947, no government except for the nine-month long liberation war in 1971 has relied so heavily and ruthlessly on the coercive power of the state. Pakistan military in 1971 could sustain their barbaric rule for only nine months, but Hasina has successfully completed twelve years of uninterrupted repression with absolute support from India, the South Asian arm of the so-called QUAD. The Japanese ambassador in India, Santoshi Suzuki publicly proclaimed in a recent interview with Indian media that US, Japan, Australia and India intend to unitedly establish control of QUAD over Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Maldives. The ultimate aim of the QUAD is of course, to counter the growing economic and military power of China in Asia and the Pacific region.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, cash-rich China is aggressively pursuing economic diplomacy in Africa and Asia to expand its global political influence. Among South Asian countries, China successfully but temporarily challenged Indian influence in Sri Lanka, Nepal and Maldives. However, India swiftly made a counter-move in Maldives and replaced the pro-Chinese regime with its chosen allies, the current President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih and his mentor former President Mohamed Nasheed. The global power and regional power are now engaged in fierce competition in Nepal and Sri Lanka to gain pole positions. After silently but closely following the process of consolidation of authoritarian power of Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh, China decided to start its own courtship with the lady autocrat since 2011. The economic giant first came to the rescue of a globally cornered Hasina in 2013 by offering to build Padma bridge through supplier’s credit when World Bank withdrew loan on the allegation of corruption at the top. Since then, China has become the main source of financing majority of the so-called mega projects in Bangladesh. The country has to bear the enormous debt burden for these show-case projects while possibly reaping some economic benefit when these are finally completed. However, the main beneficiaries of the Chinese investments are undoubtedly Sheikh Hasina herself and a small group of her cronies. In addition to boasting of inflated economic growth, the ruling coterie have made billions of dollars by indulging in unprecedented level of corruption. Although Hasina returned to power through joint mechanism of US and India in 2009, it is the Chinese money that helped her to further consolidate power. Unfortunately, Chinese policy to lure Hasina into its fold by opening the treasury was ill conceived to say the least. An attentive reading of history is required to fully understand the extent of Chinese folly.

Sheikh Hasina, the current fascist prime minister of Bangladesh took refuge in Delhi in 1975 after the military coup led by a handful of mid-ranking military officers that toppled the single-party authoritarian regime of her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The entire power structure of a budding Orwellian state crumbled in a single night because the common people supported the bloody putsch against highly unpopular and repressive Mujib regime. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India and old friend of Sheikh family granted asylum to Mujib’s two surviving daughters. Sheikh Hasina has remained ever so grateful to Indira Gandhi in particular and India in general for giving refuge to her family from 1975 to 1981. Political analysts and intelligence community in both Pakistan and Bangladesh believe that the Indian intelligence initially established contact with Sheikh Mujib during the days of united Pakistan in the 1960’s. The old relationship between Sheikh family and India has endured for more than six decades. This strategic relationship is not dependent on the change of guard in Delhi. Indian Congress helped Sheikh Hasina to regain power in 2008. Then in 2014, the same Congress government send a high-level delegation to Washington to convince US government of the necessity for keeping Sheikh Hasina in power even through undemocratic means in order to fight against the so-called Islamic terrorists in Bangladesh.

Narendra Modi came to power defeating the Congress shortly after the burial of democracy in Bangladesh. Although Hasina is an old friend of Gandhi family and preaches a brand of Islamophobic secularism while Modi is the proponent of extremely communal Hindutva, the new administration in Delhi promptly embraced the trusted client in Dhaka. Hasina in return, allowed a sovereign Bangladesh to gradually become an undeclared colony of India. Hasina feels no inhibition in publicly claiming that no Bangladeshi ruler can match what she has given to India. She steadfastly sided with Modi in all his brutal persecution of minority Muslims in India and wholesale massacre of Kashmiri Muslims. India under Modi followed the Indian Congress policy regarding Bangladesh and aided Hasina in her blatant rigging of December 2018 election. The policymakers in Delhi have every reason to feel confident that if the seven north-eastern states of India are threatened in any full-scale Sino-India war, Bangladesh under Hasina can easily be used as corridor to march their army and military equipment to thwart Chinese attempt to cut-off chicken neck along Siliguri line.

China might have taken a long-term view regarding its relationship with Sheikh Hasina and expects to gradually reduce Delhi’s influence in Bangladesh through economic diplomacy. Veteran pro-China politicians in Bangladesh might also have played a significant role in guiding the current Chinese policy. Simultaneous courting of the fascist ruler in Bangladesh by US, India and China is however, not unusual in geo-politics. We find in history many examples of similar appeasement of autocrats in the developing countries by the so-called global powers. Saddam Hossain of Iraq used to be courted in turn by the US and Soviet Union in the 1980’s. However, the present Bangladesh policy of China has its own vulnerability and uncertainty.

Vast majority of the people of Bangladesh are anti-Indian because of many historic reasons. They are by default pro-Chinese which is evident from the spontaneous support shown in the Bangladesh social media for the Chinese military in their recent Ladakh fist-fight with the Indian army. But, by no means they are ideologically communist. The nationalist and pro-Islamic population support China out of their resentment to Indian hegemony. Now, China is going against the popular sentiment of the same segment of people by bank-rolling the highly repressive Sheikh Hasina regime risking the rise of simultaneous anti-Chinese sentiment among the majority population of Bangladesh. Secondly, Chinese leadership may be unaware of the fact that since the demise of the Soviet Union most of the former communist leaning politicians and intellectuals in Bangladesh have shifted their allegiance to India because of their inherent apathy towards Islam. They would try to mislead Beijing regarding actual political situation in Bangladesh to fulfil their Islamophobic agenda. Thirdly, the apparent pro-Awami League tilt in the Chinese policy would compel the once pro-Chinese nationalist parties to amend ties with Delhi resulting in a paradigm shift in the political balance in Bangladesh. At the end, Sheikh Hasina would always remain faithful to Delhi in spite of taking Chinese fund. China seems to have taken a big gamble in Bangladesh and in all probability, the policymakers in Beijing would not change its course until Hasina shows her true color. The very policy of taking an unreliable fascist ruler on board abandoning the majority population in a country is always a non-starter.

23 March 2021