Declaring to the Chinese Premier that Bangladesh would be “an active partner” in a “China-led Asian century,” Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has underlined her willingness to deepen her country’s strategic and economic engagement with China, signing major agreements for the construction of roads, railway lines and power plants on a three-day visit to the Chinese capital.
Ms. Hasina, who met President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, also discussed with Beijing the construction of a second deep-sea port off the Cox’s Bazar coast at Sonadia — China is already involved in a port project at Chittagong — that will give China further access to the Indian Ocean, and an alternative route for energy imports.
While Ms. Hasina has pledged to boost ties with India, even reaching out to Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a congratulatory letter following his electoral victory, her reported reference to being an “active partner” in a “China-led” century in her meeting with Premier Li is likely to be noticed in New Delhi.
Ms. Hasina’s remarks were reported by the official China Daily newspaper in a front page article, and also carried by the Bangladeshi national news agency.
Five deals signed
The two countries this week signed five deals, including for Chinese assistance for the construction of a power plant in Patuakhali and building a multi-lane road tunnel under the Karnaphuli river.
The two sides are yet to reach an agreement on the Sonadia port project, which is, however, likely to take off soon, Chinese experts believe.
Mr. Xi described Bangladesh as an important country along the “maritime silk road” project that he has been championing, which envisages deepening connectivity, building ports and free trade zones, and boosting trade with littoral countries in the Indian Ocean region and in Southeast Asia.
China laid out a red carpet welcome for Ms. Hasina — on her third visit here — with the state media giving prominent coverage to her meetings with the President and Premier. Both leaders pledged to step up financial assistance and involvement in infrastructure projects in Bangladesh, a commitment readily welcomed by the Bangladeshi Prime Minister.
The Chinese push for Chittagong and Cox's Bazaar ports are not surprising. Though these will pose immense security challenges to India on its eastern flank, the Chinese have multiple reasons for such a push.
They certainly have a 'Malacca Dilemma' as Hu Jintao termed it in c. 2003. So, they want access to the Indian Ocean through various countries bypassing the Malacca Straits. Myanmar and Bangladesh offer such routes (and of course Pakistan too though it is far more difficult through the Karakoram). The recent oil & gas deal with Russia will also significantly boost China's energy security.
A second important reason is of course internal to China. Probably, this takes precedence over the others. China is not as homogenous as most of us assume. Though the Han Chinese are the most significant majority, there are others like the Uighurs, Dais, Naxis, Yis etc. After Deng Xiaoping said that getting rich was not as sinful as was earlier thought, and as manufacturing hubs, Special Economic Zones etc sprouted functioning along the South East coastal regions of China, that country witnessed one of the biggest migrations of human beings as people from the hinterland were sucked in by the wealth-generating coastal regions. There is a huge gradient in the per-capita income as one moves from the East to the West within China. Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing etc have above USD 20000 percapita incomes while Yunnan in the west and bordering Myanmar has one seventh of that. Xinjiang fares even worse. It is the Chinese belief that economic improvement can unite people and so it launched the 'Western development Programme' a decade back. Bereft of access to ports, these regions need outlets for exporting their produce. They also need oil and gas to be imported from nearby ports.
But, these developments also help China to consolidate their far-flung boundaries (The geographical boundaries of today's China are very recent), help develop military capabilities along the border, and help conceal their real intentions (as the Chinese always want to do).