Bangladesh is again on the radar of global geopolitics, this time thanks to turmoil in domestic politics amid upcoming elections and near-simultaneous high-level visits from the United States and China – each aiming to limit the other’s gains, while securing their own advancement.
On January 10, in an unprecedented move, newly appointed Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang stopped over in Dhaka as his first-ever foreign trip, which broke a streak that had lasted 32 years. It is customary for the Chinese foreign minister to make their first foreign trip of the calendar year to an African country, but this time – although it was not an official state visit – Qin met Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abul Kalam Abdul Momen first. This happened in tandem with Chen Zhou, the deputy head of the International Department of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, leading a delegate on a three-day visit to Bangladesh.
The Chinese high-level visits to Bangladesh came amid a flurry of U.S. diplomatic activity. Eileen Laubacher, the senior director for South Asia at the White House’s National Security Council, arrived in Dhaka for a four-day visit on January 7; she met with Momen on January 9, just before Qin’s brief sojourn at the Dhaka airport. Donald Lu, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, concluded a high-voltage visit last week.
This high-level diplomacy reflects the broader geopolitical competition between the United States and China, and their efforts to court Bangladesh, a geostrategically significant country situated on the head of the Bay of Bengal. The United States and China are in intense competition to win this battle, but the ultimate beneficiary is neither the U.S. nor China – it’s India. New Delhi is quietly playing Beijing and Washington against one another without draining its own resources in this geopolitical battle.
India has kept Bangladesh under its sphere of influence for a major part of the latter’s existence since 1971. This has been particularly the case when Bangladesh is ruled by the Awami League, the party in power for the last 15 years. In recent years, Dhaka has even gone a step beyond India’s demands in its quest to satisfy Delhi. The list of Bangladesh’s overtures is too long to name, while the list of reciprocal actions on the part of India is short.
India’s number one demand – to uproot Northeast separatist movements – has been delivered, much to New Delhi’s satisfaction. Bangladesh hosted India’s surveillance radar, granted access to an economic corridor connecting India’s impoverished Northeast to the mainland, and most importantly, provided access to India in all aspects of Bangladeshi life. Bangladesh became India’s third largest source of remittances, thanks in large part to the number of Indians taking up top management positions in Bangladeshi institutions.
By contrast, China’s entry into Bangladesh is new and nascent, manifested mainly after Xi Jinping’s signature initiative Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was launched in 2013 Although China has made significant inroads, its overall influence in Bangladesh remains rather limited. Beyond the economic realm, through its massive investment and trade, Beijing still lacks any significant tools to influence Bangladeshi politics and security.
Still, even this limited gain of China in Bangladesh is seen by India as coming at its own expense. Therefore, India has done all it could to counter China’s inroads, but due to extreme constraints on its resources and rising anti-India sentiment in Bangladesh, it failed to appear as an effective counterbalance against resourceful China.
India soon figured out a more effective way to deal with China while advancing its own geopolitical gain. India played the United States and China against each other, while bringing other key players – most notably Japan and Russia – into the game, especially those who oppose China and support India’s vision in Bangladesh.
The most vivid evidence of that is the Russia-U.S. tug-of-war over influence in Bangladesh. India sat on the sidelines to reap the benefits while two giants invested their energy in this battle. Due to the U.S. sanctions pressure, Bangladesh rejected the entry of a Russian vessel into its waters but India, disregarding U.S. sanctions, permitted the entry of the ship in its own port.
India has a long history of anti-West and pro-Russia positions. Although amid China’s assertiveness, India is veering toward the West to balance Beijing, New Delhi is not giving up on Russia. Instead, New Delhi has been doubling down on its engagement with Russia, especially in the energy sector, since the Ukraine war. India’s stance has been displayed vividly in Bangladesh amidst this Russia-U.S. diplomatic row.
Bangladesh is becoming a new front for the United States’ clash with Russia, in addition to the existing competition with China. But here again, the real winner is India. New Delhi opposes U.S. involvement in its neighborhood, namely in Bangladesh. Assisting Russia to expand its ground at the expense of the U.S. thus serves India’s interests, undercutting U.S. potential while emboldening its own foothold in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh’s overreliance on India and India’s geopolitical gain from this dynamic is more evident in the Bangladeshi power sector than anywhere else. The Awami League government has taken a number of initiatives to overcome the country’s chronic power shortage – most notably, building a nuclear power plant with a Russian company, Rostrum, under a $12 billion contract, 90 percent of which is funded by Russia. Although this is a bilateral deal between Bangladesh and Russia, India has been granted unparalleled access to this project to oversee the technical details.
India’s access is meant to assuage New Delhi’s worries about any future move by Bangladesh to develop any nuclear weapons, which would undermine India’s control over Bangladesh. By ensuring access to Bangladesh’s power plant, India will be able to nip the nuclear threat in the bud, but without investing anything in it.
Meanwhile, India is now facilitating the shipment of Russian nuclear power plant materials via an overland route to Bangladesh. Local media report suggests by doing this, India successfully projects itself as a defender of its neighboring country against colonial western hegemony.
India is also outprofiting the United States, China, Japan, or any other players that are doing business in Bangladesh’s power industry. The Washington Post reports suggest Bangladesh has overpaid India’s Adani group, aiming to gain the BJP’s support for the continuation of Awami League regime. Dhaka has given controversial quick rental deals to “politically connected” power companies.
India is playing Japan as well toward its own ends. Japan has its own China problem, and is investing resources to counter China’s inroads around the world. Before China’s entry into the infrastructure sector in Bangladesh, the whole market was predominantly controlled by Japanese companies. Now China has won some contracts, which makes New Delhi nervous – but India itself lacks the resources and technical knowledge to provide an alternative to China. Therefore, India is using Japanese resources to counter China’s inroads into Bangladeshi infrastructure, while securing its own interests in the process.
Bangladesh has long wished to build a deep-sea port. China tried hard to win the deal to build a deep-sea port in Sonadia, which Bangladesh had to give up due to New Delhi’s pressure. After a decade of delay, Bangladesh then welcomed Japanese investment in the BIG-B development project, which essentially aims to counter China’s inroads in the Bay of Bengal region. Now Japan is building the deep-sea port of Matarbari, along with a number of umbrella projects such as coal power plants, and a cross-country road providing connectivity with India’s northeastern states.
In a conflict with China, India’s success hinges on how quickly it could move its forces from the mainland to the Northeast. India has long been pressuring Dhaka to build road connectivity via Bangladesh to connect its Northeast with the Bay of Bengal and its West Bengal state. But due to security concerns, Bangladesh showed some reluctance to pursue this. Now, Japan is building the same road connectivity under its BIG-B project, with its own investment but helping India to gain its strategic objectives.
Most importantly, the incumbent Awami League government has been in power for the last 15 years, following controversial elections. With the next elections due later this year, all the Western countries have been increasing pressure on the Awami League to guarantee a free, fair election. India, despite being the world’s largest democracy, has not followed suit. Rather it is doing all it can to shield the Awami League from external pressure.
India knows any tacit interference on its part by pressuring the government in Bangladesh about democracy will lose New Delhi its support base in the Awami League. Thus India allows the United States and the West to carry the burden of pressing the government on the normative side, while India itself is deploying countervailing forces in Dhaka to prevent the regime from total collapse. As a bonus, this essentially creates a perception that it is only India that can save the government, resulting in Dhaka’s increasing reliance on New Delhi.
In essence, India knows as long as Awami League is in power in Bangladesh, Delhi will continue to get more than what it asks for.