On 10 May 2021, Li Jiming, the Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh, spoke at a virtual event with representatives of the Diplomatic Correspondents Association of Bangladesh (DCAB). While speaking about the bilateral relationship between Bangladesh and China, the Chinese Ambassador said that Bangladesh should not join the “Quad,” a US-led initiative and that joining it would “substantially damage” Bangladesh’s ties with its big neighbor – China. He described Quad as “a military alliance aimed against China’s peaceful rise and its relationship with neighboring countries,” according to media reports. Quad, as stated by the ambassador, is a “narrow-purposed” geopolitical group that Bangladesh should not join because it would not help Bangladesh. The Chinese concern is legitimate, as it has committed a substantial amount of resources to Bangladesh’s development as a BRI partner country. However, Bangladesh does import around USD 8 billion worth of goods from China per year.
On 11 May 2021, Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Moment responded to the Chinese stance and told the local media that Bangladesh maintained a non-aligned, balanced foreign policy and would make decisions based on that principle. He also said that China had the right to express their stance and that Bangladesh always welcomed what others had to say. “We’ll pay attention to what they have to say. However, we will know what is best for us.” Mr. Momen also clarified that no member of the Quad had approached Bangladesh about joining the grouping. Then there’s the obvious issue of why China suddenly brought up the Quad and Bangladesh. Is China aware of any Quad strategy linked to Bangladesh that Bangladesh is unaware of?
India – another big neighbor of Bangladesh with whom it shares almost all the land borders, may pursue Bangladesh to sign some strategic deals against China in the Bay of Bengal region. Indian influence in Bangladesh cannot be overlooked as a backer of Bangladesh’s independence struggle. Bangladesh, on the other hand, is heavily reliant on Indian products, importing about USD 10 billion from the country per year. Bangladesh cannot afford even a smidgeon of hostility with India from a strategic standpoint. As a result, without Indian approval, Bangladesh will be unable to completely participate in China’s BRI and REPC initiatives.
However, the Quad leader US imports about USD 6.7 billion in goods from Bangladesh, and as a world power, the US has substantial influence over Bangladesh’s economy, despite the fact that many people believe the US views Bangladesh through Indian eyes. To maintain its hegemony, the United States desperately need to halt China’s rise, as their mutual competition has devolved into armed rivalry. In the South China Sea, the US is fueling geopolitical crises against China in the name of freedom of navigation. However, the United States, despite being a long way from Asia, has yet to gain an edge in containing China. Since Quad has been dubbed the “Indo-Pacific NATO” as part of the US’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, and Europe poised to help it, Bangladesh’s enlistment in the Quad or Quad+ platform would undoubtedly enrage China. Bangladesh must remember this.
In addition, another Quad member, Japan, is cooperating with Bangladesh in a variety of areas. Bangladesh’s industry, for example, appeals to Japan and Japan hopes to counter the BRI in the Bay of Bengal region for geopolitical reasons. Japan, along with India and the US, were the driving forces behind Dhaka’s decision to abandon China envisioned Sonadia deep-sea port project in favor of collaborating with Japan on a similar project in Matarbari.
Bangladesh has a trade volume of USD 2 billion with Australia. Agricultural products and cotton are among Australia’s top exports to Bangladesh, while clothing and textiles are the most common imports. Bangladeshi goods reach Australia duty-free and quota-free as a Least Developed Country.
It is also an undeniable fact that China’s support and investment in Bangladesh have been playing one of the major roles in the remarkable economic development of Bangladesh. If Bangladesh joins Quad, the relationship with China will deteriorate and the current phases of countrywide development will be hampered. Besides, China supported projects will not see lights in future. Bangladesh will also be deprived of less expensive technologies of China. It is also anticipated by many that Quad will be struggling to keep up with the Chinese offers for Bangladesh.
Since many believe that Quad is the core concept of the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy to contain the rise of China, it is presumable that China wants Bangladesh to stand by its side in the face of such a strategic coalition or at least stay neutral. The recent visit of General Wei Fenghe, China’s defense minister symbolizes that. It was reported in the media that he met with President Md Abdul Hamid and told him of Beijing’s discontent with Quad.
Bangladesh now has the ball in its court. It, on the one hand, has a strategic relationship with China, and cannot afford to take an anti-China stance in order to fully support the US-led Quad. Bangladesh, on the other hand, would be unable to take a stance that would be averse to India’s interests. So, what will Bangladesh’s response be?
Bangladesh has two options in hand.
1. A non-alignment policy
2. A policy of dual-commitment
Bangladesh’s non-alignment strategy requires it to remain neutral, passive, and unaffected. However, this approach is unappealing and will deprive Bangladesh of the benefits that come from the economic rivalry between the major powers.
Dual commitments, however, are a complicated set of policies. Through these policies, Bangladesh can engage economically with both and aim to preserve the current development status of the economy and avoid military confrontation for the sake of peace in the region. In this connection, Bangladesh should pursue the Bay of Bengal policy, which will include coastal Bay of Bengal countries, so as to protect themselves against the impact of the clash of Titans. In other words, economic cooperative efforts are welcome, but military-strategic cooperation against China or Quad must be discouraged.
In order to form a Non-aligned group aimed at regional cooperation and defense, Bangladesh must initiate intense diplomacy with India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Myanmar and other coastal countries of the Bay of Bengal. If this region wants peace, it must move regionally. This region should not allow an extra-regional power like the US to play with it’s destiny, since many cases of US’s foul play are recorded in history. Likewise, China should not resort to ‘Wolf Warrior Diplomacy’ to move its neighbors to an unwanted zero-sum game.
Written by Rajeev Ahmed, Geopolitical analyst and a strategic thinker from Dhaka