Caught Between Rivals: Bangladesh’s Quad/China diplomacy

Written by: Tayabur Rahman

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD, also known as the Quad) is an informal strategic dialogue between the United States, Japan, Australia and India. It is maintained by talks between member countries. This alliance was created in response to China’s increasing influences in the Asia Pacific area. With the American leadership, it has become a powerful consortium which has extended its geography from one end of the Pacific to the very end of the Indian ocean bordering the Africa continent. This grouping is often pricked as “like minded democracies”. Many political observers, however, orate that if these four countries are the face of “democracy” and human rights – may God save them from such democracies by His own mercy!

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison labelled it as an “anchor of peace and stability in the region” but no one doubts that its eventual goal is to act as a counter-weight to China’s economic rise. So, we already have an idea what QUAD is and how it is going to work in this region.

First, we must know about the relation between Bangladesh and QUAD countries, along with the relationship between Bangladesh and China so that we can understand the emerging geopolitical landscape unfolding before us. Once we understand this, we can determine the options and strategies available to navigate this space, as per our national interest.

Bangladesh-US Relationship:

Bangladesh has one of the best diplomatic relationships in almost every aspect with the US. Today, the US remains the largest market for Bangladesh’s woven garments taking US$2.42 billion which is 47% share of Bangladesh’s total woven exports. So, we can 

understand what will happen if the US creates any issue in this sector. Additionally, the US has the most Bangladeshi immigrants which is about 8,00,000 in 2021. Furthermore, the US has a very good relationship with Bangladesh  in terms of defence and providing economic grants. The US has the strongest diplomatic power that Bangladesh may avail of in the international platform. Therefore, maintaining a good relationship with the US is one of the top priorities of Bangladesh’s foreign policy.

Bangladesh-India Relationship:

In terms of India, I think I do not have to narrate all the issues which every Bangladeshi already knows about. Being the subcontinent’s giant and our biggest neighbor covering 3 sides of our border, India has the most influence in every possible sector of our country. So, let us jump to another QUAD country which is Japan.

Bangladesh-Japan Relationship:

Japan has been one kind of unconditional friend since our independence. Japan has been the ‘single largest donor’ to Bangladesh ever since diplomatic ties were established in February 1972. Japan recognizes the strategic significance of Bangladesh in a changing Asia, and wants to help the nation approach global competition better. They recently extended ¥132.7 billion in loans to Bangladesh for the construction of a commercial port and a high-speed railway. Bangladesh will not  take any decision which may go against Japan’s interest broadly.

Bangladesh-Australia Relationship:

And last but not least – Australia. Australia was among one of the  first countries to recognize Bangladesh after it achieved independence in 1971. Australia and Bangladesh hold regular senior officials’ talks and the two countries will celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations in 2022. Australia also enjoys a strong development and 

trade relationship with Bangladesh and will continue to support Bangladesh through its response and recovery from COVID-19. Their development program will support Bangladesh’s health security, stability and economic recovery, placing a strong emphasis on protecting the most vulnerable. Bangladeshi exports to Australia alone were valued at 50,188.917 BDT million in 2020. So, Bangladesh, being a developing country, is very unlikely to take any step which hinders Australia’s interest in the international platform either.

Bangladesh-China Relationship:

Now, let us discuss the star player  China, with whom Bangladesh is largely engaged in the defense and economic sector, infrastructural activities, cultural collaboration and so on. China has arguably the most extensive business and trade relations with Bangladesh. Over the past 45 years, the relationship between China and Bangladesh has been developing with mutual cooperation and friendship on both sides. In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed one of the biggest master plans of the century – ‘The Belt and Road Initiative’. It has become a most popular platform for international cooperation. Bangladesh is a proud member of this initiative, and I believe Bangladesh will play a significant role in the advancement of this epic project. Furthermore, a total of 8,256 Bangladeshi products will now be relieved from tariff while exporting to China. Bangladesh has described this as a success in economic diplomacy. This treatment is in addition to the preferential duties that we are already enjoying from China under the Asia-Pacific Trade Agreement. So, we can understand the weight of our relationship with China.

Bangladesh’s Bewilderment

Moving on to what Bangladesh is already facing or going to face in the near future, standing in the core of these two parties’ diplomacy.

Like I said, it is difficult for Bangladesh to not disappoint Australia, Japan or Indian let alone the USA. Again, Bangladesh can’t loosen ties with China either, since lots of infrastructural developments that are currently going on in Bangladesh, including the Padma Bridge, Power Grid Strengthening Project and more, have been possible due to the help of China. Additionally, it is crucial to consider China’s contribution in our defense sector. I don’t have to mention all those weapons’ names since we all have basic ideas about it. Therefore, Bangladesh can’t disappoint China at all.

Chinese State Councilor and Defense Minister Wei Fenghe recently paid a short visit to Dhaka. His recent visit definitely indicated China’s desperate attitude towards our country. Recently, Chinese ambassador released a hard speech against Bangladesh’s potential approach towards the Quad forum. Quad is an alluring forum for Bangladesh since Bangladesh might enjoy western shadow in this region but Chinese support is the reality for Bangladesh right now. Moreover, India is a big player in this region and their ambition for the near future in this subcontinent is possibly threatening for small countries like us. So, if we can balance the relations with China and other Quad countries, we can be the key player or game changer in this region. Bangladesh has been suffering from water shortage for Farakka barrage since the 70s. For the last few decades, Bangladesh has been suffering from a huge water shortage from the Teesta barrage. The Indian central government could not manage Mamata Banerjee or provide enough effort to solve this issue. Bangladesh has waited for long in spite of being their best friend. Instead, China offered Bangladesh a groundbreaking offer. After failing to sign a water-sharing agreement with India, Bangladesh has received support from China for a US $1 billion engineering scheme on the Teesta. The new China-backed Teesta River management project offers hope for the people living in the northern region of Bangladesh, who face floods and erosion during the monsoon and severe water shortages during the dry season. The project not only aims at river regime and flood control but also to meet a water crisis in the dry season and enable economic development in the greater Rangpur region. 

Its other aspects are land reclamation, development and utilization, transportation and shipping, mitigation of social and environmental impact and restoration of the ecosystem and promoting socio-economic development of locals.

So, if Bangladesh can make it happen, India will lose another trump card to bid with Bangladesh.

What Bangladesh Should Do:

Bangladesh has to be very diplomatic and steady before taking any step or uttering any word in terms of foreign policy. Bangladesh should neither join the Quad forum nor openly be engaged with any Chinese treaty which might disappoint Quad countries. The Rohingya crisis is a major issue for Bangladesh. China has always supported the other side from the very beginning. On the other hand, Western states are always against Burma, a position which is ultimately against China. Again, Western blocks did not solve this issue until now to get the best out of it from Bangladesh with negotiation, even though the US alone could have solved this crisis long ago. Again, China alone also is capable of solving this crisis. China is also waiting to see what it can bargain for from both Burma & Bangladesh at the end of the day. Recently, China offered Bangladesh & Burma a tripartite meeting regarding Rohingya repatriation. So, this is beckoning a huge potential for us. Bangladesh has to play with a cool mind and a sharp diplomatic brain with all the players. Only then can Bangladesh get the best out of this game – it has to have its feet on both camps. A country’s independence & development depends upon the country’s successful diplomacy and foreign policy. Since there is no permanent friend & enemy in international relations, Bangladesh has to act accordingly. If Bangladesh & China start working in collaboration on more projects, India will be in pseudo pressure. Bangladesh will be able to throw its weight about maintaining a balance in power in this region between these two giants.  We need more professional veteran diplomats who can negotiate & bargain hard on an international platform. The government should make a vivid plan to create & utilize such resources.  I do not know whether we have well established & good think tank institutes which may help our government to take appropriate decisions at appropriate times. If not, it is high time we thought about it. There should be several professional think tank institutes in our country like in Western countries and the government should pay heed to them.


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Thumbnail Courtesy: The Business Standard

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