Bangladesh’s snub to China: A lesson for other nations in the subcontinent

Country’s Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen reminded Ambassador Jiming that as a sovereign independent country, Bangladesh could take its own decisions on regional issues

Bangladesh may have handed out multi-crore major infra development projects to Chinese firms, but it never misses an opportunity to tick off the bigger country when necessary.

China’s growing influence in the subcontinent has always been a matter of worry for India, but Bangladesh Foreign Minister’s recent drubbing to the Chinese Ambassador in that country speaks volumes of the deftness with which our eastern neighbour has handled political/diplomatic pressure from Beijing.

The recent provocation was provided by Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh Li Jiming a few days back, when he suggested that if Dhaka joined the QUAD grouping of countries (India-Australia-US-Japan), which China considers a regional threat, the Sino-Bangla bilateral relationship would suffer ‘substantial damage’.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen slammed Ambassador Jiming, reminding him that as a sovereign independent country, Bangladesh could take its own decisions on regional issues.

It does not require the shrewdness of a Chanakya to grasp Jiming’s essential message. Having pledged to invest over $22 billion to help finance 27 major infra, IT and power sector projects in Bangladesh over the next few years, China feels it can call the tune in its ties with India’s eastern neighbour. Dictating a tweak in the smaller country’s foreign policy is obviously a minor perk in Beijing’s perception.

Dhaka, however, bristled against his comments not so much for the content but for the manner in which it was delivered. For good measure, Mr Momen said the Chinese diplomat’s words were unnecessarily ‘aggressive and unfortunate’ when there had been no proposal made to Bangladesh on joining QUAD.

Beijing’s reaction to Dhaka’s annoyance occurred along the lines of what  the late Ian Fleming, the literary creator of James Bond, had written about Communist diplomatic styles. “Their moves,” he said, “could be subtly nuanced, blowing hot and cold at the same time”. The Chinese objective was always to confuse the enemy, keeping him off-balance.

Mr Jiming, on sensing Dhaka’s hurt pride, explained to newsmen the very next day that “his command of English was less than ideal”. The diplomat tried to pacify Mr Momen by saying that he might have misused certain words which led to his conveying something he did not want to! An observer in Kolkata termed it as an amazing admission for a diplomat. “It is news indeed that Beijing despatches people with a poor grasp of English as career diplomats to a fast growing  medium income  country of 160 million people!” he said.

The formal Chinese reply to Dhaka made from Beijing was firmer, more composed (hot?): Nothing that  Jiming said could possibly have violated Bangladesh’s honour as a self-respecting nation, the Foreign Office spokesman insisted.

Bangladesh balances relationship with India and China

Bangladesh has handed out multi-crore major infra development and other projects to Chinese firms for implementation. For example, the massive new Padma bridge, estimated to cost Rs 30,193 crore or Taka 300 billion. The developing country though never ceases to tick off the bigger country when necessary.

Despite repeated requests, Dhaka has not allowed China to go ahead with the proposed Sonadiya deep sea port project in the Bay of Bengal. The Sheikh Hasina government has cited environmental concerns as a reason, but it also wants to avoid annoying India. Notably, New Delhi had objected to the Sonadia project citing security implications.

As a compromise, a new deep sea port will come up in the Bay of Bengal, but at Matarbari, some 25 kilometres off Sonadia. Besides, the project will be implemented with Japanese assistance, not Chinese financial might!

In another instance, during bilateral discussions over arranging for medical assistance and hi-tech help from China, Beijing suddenly insisted that part of the cost of a project would have to be borne by Bangladesh. Dhaka refused point blank, explaining that no such demand had been made by the Chinese during preliminary talks.

Pakistan and Sri Lanka succumb to Chinese pressure

This contrasts markedly with the experience of Pakistan, as a recipient of Chinese investments. According to Pakistani as well as international observers, Islamabad has compromised much of its  sovereignty/independence to China over the implementation of $87 billion (current estimate) multi-layered CPEC projects. Individual projects like power plants, factories etc are being implemented totally under Chinese  control. The functioning costs of work/materials are often changed at Beijing’s discretion. Pakistan has little leverage, thanks to blanket type of power enjoyed by the donor country at the time of signing of the bilateral CPEC agreements. Their contents were never published in public domain.

Further, Baluch insurgents, angry at not being consulted over major projects in Baluchistan by either the China or Pakistan, regularly attack installations and labour/personnel. Pakistani failure to curb Baluch unrest has resulted in China snubbing Pakistan publicly. Beijing also suggested negotiating a separate peace deal with the angry Baluch, with or without Pakistan’s involvement.

Under Chinese pressure, Pakistani authorities provided special security for thousands of working personnel. At least 15,000 Pakistani rangers are guarding their homes and installations. Incidentally, mostly Chinese workers are given work instead of locals, because of their ‘skills.’ Their pay/salaries etc  having been worked out as part of projects costs, which the Chinese provide. On average, 30% of the Chinese money invested in different countries in infra/related projects is thus earned back by Chinese labourers, who are often short of work at home! ‘There is not a lot the Pakistanis can do,’ as angry Pak commentators/analysts never tire of reminding people in their televised chat shows.

Similarly, Sri Lanka has been forced to lease the facilities of the Hambantota port for over 99 years, at a cost of $ 1.12 billion, in addition to handing over to CM Port, a Chinese company, 70% of the stake. This means major part of the operating profits, which have been slow in coming ,will go to China for years.  Some Sri Lankan analysts  insist that the ownership of the port has not changed hands and that it is the Island’s own inability to attract FDI and increase its exports that have led to the kind of agreement worked out over Hambantota port bilaterally.

Nepal and Myanmar stand up to Chinese aggression

Of late, Myanmar and Nepal have seen public protests against proposed China–aided projects and political issues, unlike in Pakistan or Sri Lanka.

In Myanmar, China has once again moved to the centrestage with the beleaguered Army junta facing sanctions and isolation internationally. It can turn to material assistance of any kind only from Beijing, which does not bother much about the Rohingya issue or the conflicts with Shan/Kachin minorities so long as it can win major work orders for mega infra projects. No wonder it is once more pressing for the massive $3.6 billion dam project, which had been strongly resisted by Myanmarese people and environmental authorities for its long-term impact on habitat/economic security affecting thousands of people. Over 90% of power generated from the dam would have gone to China. There is also strong opposition to a big copper mine project and the proposed Sino-Myanmar oil and gas pipeline project. Already a major campaign sponsored by the Chinese is underway to ‘explain’ the situation and persuade the people to rethink their options.

Also read: The Quad has the ability to bark, but can it ‘bite’ China?

In Nepal, the media as well as common people can protest to some extent when issues related Chinese projects go wrong. Nepal had seen massive demonstrations against the Huawei office employing many Chinese workers, because sensitive data about Nepalese citizens had been allegedly misused. The company denied this. There have also been angry protests against what are allegedly territorial encroachments by China in three areas close to the international border in recent months. The Chinese response has been typical: Diplomats, not conversant with usual norms to be observed in handling negative publicity in foreign capitals in democratic countries, resorted to naming and blaming individual publications as ‘entities that were interested in spoiling Sino-Nepal relations’!

Protests in Bangladesh against non-receipt of wages

In the same vein, at least four workers were killed at Chittagong (Bangladesh) recently when the police opened fire at protesters, who tried to break into the office of a Chinese–run coal-based power unit. They were protesting against the non-receipt of wages and the lack of response from their employers. About 1,000 Chinese workers are engaged at the power plant along with 3,000 locals.

Chinese workers reportedly do not mix much with local people and live in separate housing units.  Following the violence, there was a general announcement declaring that all pending payments would be made soon. An uneasy calm prevailed at the site, said local reports. Local workers complained that their Chinese colleagues did not help them.

Further, there have also been allegations of Chinese blacklisted firms handling a flyover construction  project in Bangladesh. A major breakdown was reported at the sight a few days back, allegedly because of poor quality material and workmanship. Naturally, Bangladesh media reported such developments in detail.

Pakistan is not really a concern for the Chinese, but they need to tread more carefully while dealing with public opinion in Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar regarding its ambitious infra development projects like the Belt and Road initiative. Cosying up to ruling regimes of the day in smaller countries may not necessarily be a good long-term diplomacy for Beijing.

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