Amid India-Nepal spat over territory, China seeks to woo Bangladesh with massive tariff exemption, vows to help it deal with COVID-19

·6-min read

Amid India's stand-off with China over the Galwan Valley and its struggles to resolve its border dispute with Nepal, it appears that Beijing is making a move to woo Bangladesh, another old friend of New Delhi.

Barely a month after Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina and Chinese president Xi Jinping held a discussion to upgrade their bilateral relations during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bangladesh's ministry of foreign affairs announced that 97 percent of its products €" an eye-popping number €" would be exempted from Chinese tariffs starting 1 July.

And this is not the only overture Beijing has recently made towards Dhaka, which like Nepal, has traditionally enjoyed close cultural and economic ties with India.

Just yesterday, China vowed that Bangladesh would be a top priority should Beijing develop a coronavirus vaccine. "Of course, Bangladesh is our important friend and Bangladesh will surely get priority," Deputy Chief of Mission at the Chinese Embassy in Dhaka Hualong Yan was quoted as saying by The Daily Star. He added that Bangladesh and China were "working closely" to deal with the situation.

China bets big on Bangladesh

New Delhi has every reason to worry about Dhaka being weaned away. Bangladesh, a member of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which India has steadfastly refused to join, has seen an estimated $31 billion investment flow from China over the years, mainly in infrastructure and energy.

Beijing's investments in Bangladesh €" including the construction of a six-km bridge across the Padma river (as the Ganga is known in the country) for around $3.7 billion and a $2.5 billion power plant at Payra near Dhaka €" rank only behind its $60 billion investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

In 2015, China became Bangladesh's top trade partner, a position India had occupied for 40 years, and currently accounts for 34 percent of its total imports.

Worse, India's big brother attitude towards Bangladesh, which stands in stark contrast with China's model of "non-interference" bolstered by big spending, has led to deep resentment in the minds of ordinary citizens, as per a report in The Diplomat.

All of which surely hasn't escaped the attention of Hasina, who has already scheduled a visit to China in the first week of July, the first such trip to Beijing after her re-election. Hasina is also expected to press for the Bangladesh-China- India-Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor which has failed to take off and which China has had an eye on reviving.

What further complicates matters is what occurred last year between India and Bangladesh when officials privately acknowledged a strain due to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Hasina referring to India-Bangladesh ties a 'shonali odhyay' (golden chapter).

"Bangladesh is India's best friend in the neighbourhood and remarks about pushing back infiltrators and lumping Bangladesh in the same league as Pakistan have generated a lot of worry among the public," a senior Bangladeshi official, speaking on condition of anonymity while referring to the CAA, told Hindustan Times.

Experts say India is right to be wary. As per a report in DW, Siegfried O Wolf, director of research at the South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF), a Brussels-based think-tank, says China's increasing influence in South Asia poses a massive challenge to New Delhi for both, political and security reasons.

"China has a port facility [Hambantota] in Sri Lanka, they have Gwadar [in Pakistan], they are building a port facility in Myanmar [Kyaukpyu] €" this gives India the feeling of being surrounded by China. This is the military dimension of Indian concern," Wolf told DW.

He also cautioned that China might use investments to gain political influence. "So there is a threat for India that China might influence the government of Bangladesh." This influence may also have an economic dimension, Wolf added. "We have seen China driving out other countries from the market. For instance, it has become very difficult for French and German companies to get contracts in African countries."

India-Nepal spat deepens

Beijing's moves assume significance coming days after the Nepal government completed the process of redrawing the country's political map through a constitutional amendment that incorporated three strategically important Indian areas of Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura, a move that could severely jolt relations with New Delhi.

This came in response to defence minister Rajnath Singh inaugurating an 80-km strategically crucial road connecting the Lipulekh pass with Dharchula in Uttarakhand on 8 May. Nepal protested the inauguration of the road, claiming that it passed through its territory.

Nepal on Sunday upped the ante by claiming that 90 percent of its coronavirus cases are migrant workers who returned from abroad, mostly from India.

Residents of India's border villages also complained that Nepal's FM radio channels are broadcasting propaganda to back Kathmandu's claim on Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura.

"Some Nepalese FM channels have of late started playing anti-India speeches in between Nepali songs," Shalu Datal, a resident of Dantu village in Pithoragarh's Dharchula sub-division told PTI. "As people on both sides of the border listen to Nepali songs, they also hear the anti-India speeches delivered by Nepalese leaders," she said. The main FM stations playing anti-India content between songs are Naya Nepal and Kalapani Radio, Datal added.

These radio stations have also started giving weather reports on Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura, treating them as Nepalese territory, Krishna Garbiyal, a Rang community leader based in Dharchula told PTI. However, the district administration and police said they have no information about any anti-India propaganda launched by Nepal through its FM radio channels.

Last week, sources in the Indian government put the onus of creating a conducive atmosphere for talks between India and Nepal with the KP Sharma Oli regime, claimed that the release of the new political map by Nepal and obtaining a legal backing to it from the Lower House of Nepalese Parliament were part of a "myopic" agenda to gain mileage in domestic politics and rejected Nepal's contention that India did not respond to its proposal for talks on the boundary issue.

"New Delhi's ongoing refusal to hold substantive talks on the disputed border has not helped either," Ian Hall, professor in international relations at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, and author of 'Modi and the Reinvention of Indian Foreign Policy.' told Bloomberg. "There is no doubt that Beijing has worked hard to build a closer party-to-party relationship between Oli's government and the Chinese Communist Party, in parallel to conventional diplomatic links."

Whatever happens next, it is clear that for New Delhi, which is engaged in spats with both Nepal and China over conflicting territorial claims, there are no easy answers.

With inputs from agencies

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