In late July, against the recent backdrop of uneasy Indo-Bangladesh relations, and with the Sino-Indian rivalry heating up, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan suddenly made a phone call to Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
The call created media speculation about whether the growing Chinese presence in the country was leading the Hasina administration to consider drifting apart from New Delhi and moving closer to Islamabad. Many believe that Islamabad is trying to take advantage of the geopolitical situation in the region to coax Dhaka to change its foreign policy in order to encroach on the influence in South Asia of its arch rival, India.
Because of Bangladesh’s vulnerable geopolitical location, India had traditionally played the most significant role in foreign policy decisions in Dhaka.
But for the past 10 or 12 years, a new player, China, has been on the scene. It gives Bangladesh a valuable bargaining chip in its dealings with its powerful neighbour, something Dhaka has long sought. Instead of basing its decision solely on its interactions with India, Bangladesh is now starting to take China into account in its foreign policy decisions. To determine the course of its ties with Pakistan, therefore, it is imperative to understand the nature of Indo-Chinese patterns of engagement with Bangladesh.
India’s Foreign Policy & What Made Bangladesh ‘Uncomfortable’
Many believe that Indian foreign policy toward Bangladesh is contradictory, ambivalent, and sometimes even mysterious.
In the history of bilateral relations between the two neighbours, regardless of the party in power in New Delhi, India adopted policies that were beneficial to the Muslim nationalists and Islamists who are commonly known as ‘pro-Pakistanis’ in Bangladesh. India’s policies and actions made the internal politics of secular or quasi-secular forces in Bangladesh much more difficult.
Regardless of political affiliation, a significant number of Bangladeshis believe that India’s goal is to keep Bangladesh in its orbit.
However, whether it was the right wing or the ‘India-friendly’ Awami League that was in power, all felt that they were under excessive pressure from New Delhi, and found that they had limited options in dealing with India. A host of concerns—the relentless border killings by the BSF, the construction of a 2,116-mile barbed wire fence around Bangladesh, a huge trade imbalance, the water exchange issues around various rivers—all made Dhaka extremely uneasy with New Delhi.
In Bangladesh, across the board, the common perception – of the BJP’s Hindutva leanings – is not only that it is ‘anti-Muslim’ but also ‘anti-Bangladesh’.
The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) of 2019 and related unresolved issues are putting enormous internal pressure on the Sheikh Hasina government, which her administration is desperately trying to alleviate. Unlike her predecessors, however, she now has an alternative means to relieve some of the pressure. Emboldened, China has come forward as a would-be saviour.
China’s Geo-Strategic Interest In Bangladesh
Because of its anti-Soviet and anti-India stance, China, unlike India, opposed the creation of Bangladesh. China recognised Bangladesh in 1975, right after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who is regarded as Bangladesh’s ‘Father of the Nation’. Since then, China has had a cordial relationship with successive governments, including that of Hasina, Mujib’s daughter.
China now wants to use Bangladesh’s economic dependence on its foreign policy advantage.
Instead of maintaining a delicate balance between China and India, China wants Bangladesh to follow a China-centered policy, like Nepal, and distance itself from both India and the United States. In return, China will invest even more in the country. As part of this strategy, China believes that stronger ties between Bangladesh and Pakistan will serve China’s geostrategic interests. But will Bangladesh go for it?
How Does Bangladesh View Pakistan?
The status of Pakistan in Bangladesh is entirely different from that of any other state. Bangladeshis consider it almost a ‘pariah’. The memory of the 1971 genocide committed by the Pakistani military, which claimed at least 3 million lives, is still vivid in the minds of many Bangladeshis. Despite Bangladesh’s longstanding demand, Pakistan has never officially apologised for this atrocity.
Another ongoing source of grievance is the fact that more than half a million Pakistanis, mainly of Bihari origin, have been stranded in Bangladesh since Independence.
In the face of these unhealed wounds, neither the government nor any political party in Bangladesh is willing to openly favour establishing good ties with Pakistan.
No Pakistani head of state has ever taken any initiative to address Bangladesh’s concerns.
Given this impasse, there is virtually nothing for Bangladesh to gain by warming ties with a country that is both economically and militarily weaker than India, its other neighbour.
Therefore, despite Chinese interest, Bangladesh will continue to balance India and China to gain maximum economic benefits from both, although Bangladesh may occasionally play the Pakistan card to blunt India’s influence – as India views its neighbour through a Pakistani prism.
(Dr Sayeed Iftekhar Ahmed teaches at the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Public University System. He is the author of ‘Water for Poor Women: Quest for an Alternative Paradigm’. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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