Maintaining our friendships with both India and China right now is no cakewalk
Covid-19, the biggest pandemic hitting the world in the last hundred years, has given birth also to other conflicts internationally between big countries that are either traditional antagonists or have found new causes to bicker or fight about.
Trump took a wide swipe against China, first blaming the country for the pandemic (because it did not reveal the spread until too late), and later accusing the country of trade malpractices and by imposing tariff on imports from China. And then came the Indo-Chinese skirmish in Ladakh, 12,000 feet above the ground, when India was seriously battling the spread of the virus along the length and breadth of the country.
Already, dozens of Indian soldiers have died protecting their territory, but we do not know if any Chinese have died. In addition, insurgency in Kashmir has once again flared up killing both Indian soldiers and militants.
It is ironic that when hundreds of thousands of people have died or are still dying from the virus across the globe, others are dying because of the conflicts that have been going on for decades between nations even in these dire days of the pandemic.
Unfortunately, these fights between countries, whether over trade or territory, have put smaller countries in a quandary since they are also drawn to these conflicts, either because they are neighbours, or they have alliances of one kind or another with these countries. Take Bangladesh, for example. Since birth, it has maintained a kind of filial relationship with India for well known reasons, but it has also grown a steady economic and political relationship with China, the US, and Arab countries independent of its ties with India.
These multi-pronged foreign relations in politics and trade have paid dividends to the growing economy of the country and helped develop an independent image which is away from the one associated at our birth.
The US perhaps can afford a trade war with China even though China is the country’s largest trading partner. If it imposes tariffs on Chinese goods (some of which are already in place but, as President Trump threatens, will do more of), it can get away with it even if China retaliates. It may even ask its allies to follow suit, not that they will follow.
But there is a possibility that, with US sanctions on Chinese corporations and financial institutions, other countries doing trade with China may get affected. But it will not be at the same level as the impact on Bangladesh or other smaller countries which have trade relations with China.
This brings us to a second issue -- what happens to Bangladesh and smaller countries in South Asia when the adversaries are India and China, and not the US and China. Bangladesh cannot afford to take any side in this Indo-Chinese battle.
There are plenty of reasons why Bangladesh can even indulge in such thoughts. These are both political and strategic.
Bangladesh has a five-decade long relationship with India starting from March 1971. Besides standing by the fledgling country from pangs of birth through its early days of economic struggle, India has been a reliable neighbour in need. Both countries have gone through changes in government since then, and there have been periods where suspicions have seeped in regarding Indian attitude and policy to Bangladesh and vice versa.
In 1975, when violent changes took place in Bangladesh, there was widespread fear of Indian intervention which never materialized. Similarly, doubts were expressed in some Indian quarters about intentional harbouring of Indian militants in Bangladesh but never took shape of any hostile action from India against Bangladesh.
In fact, over the last 50 years, the only instances of any hostility between were normal incidents of border killing of civilians suspected of smuggling.
In the meanwhile, what has progressed in both countries is mutual trade, which, unfortunately, has not been to the advantage of Bangladesh. Today, imports to Bangladesh are six times more than what India imports from Bangladesh ($5.9 billion vs $1.2 billion in 2019).
This is not just because the major Bangladeshi exports are garment-based that do not have a market in India, and which are a competing product. Imports from India on the other hand are commodities and fabrics that have a high demand in the Bangladesh market.
But despite the trade gap with India, the mutual relationship between the countries has not worsened over the years. What has increased, however, is a growing perception in some quarters in Bangladesh of a growing Indian hegemony in the sub-continent and its attempt at economic and political suzerainty over the neighbouring countries.
This perception has given birth to conspiracy theories of political influence of India over smaller countries, Bangladesh included. Political opposition has always given voice to this theory and consequently it has given rise to a growing Indo-phobia in Bangladesh. This has been aggravated by the rise of the Hindu nationalist party, BJP in India, and subsequent policies that the government led by this party implemented recently, most importantly the citizenship act targeted against Muslims, and abrogation of the special status of Kashmir.
In a country with a majority Muslim population, these latest acts by India were not received well. So, the Indo-phobic forces in Bangladesh got an incentive to voice their opposition to reliance on India.
So, which force should the country look at for a back-up plan? For India bashers, it is China, of course, even though China is not exactly at our doorstep. It is also despite the blaring historical fact of China not recognizing Bangladesh until the 1975 political change.
But since then, a sea change has occurred in the relationship between the two countries. China is not only one of the major trading partners of Bangladesh, but it is the single largest development partner of the country. Besides providing financial assistance to build the national pride project -- Padma bridge -- China has also underwritten to fund a new sea port (Payra), a tunnel in Chittagong, a special economic zone in Bangladesh, and possibly many other under the Belt and Road initiative of China.
In other words, China has occupied the development scene with its financing faster than any other development partner of Bangladesh, including India.
Therefore, it is not uncommon for some in Bangladesh to urge the country to move away from its Indo-centric policy to China, and tilt toward the latter not only for economic reasons but political as well. But herein lies the rub.
It is one thing to have China as a development partner and improve our trade relationship with it. But it is a completely different thing to develop a political liaison with a country that has an intent to dominate Asia as a powerhouse. China’s intentions over the sub-continent, particularly its traditional rivalry with India, are not unknown.
Bangladesh can ill afford to mingle with China or politically support it in any way that may make India suspicious of Bangladesh and jeopardize its decades-old friendship with the latter. Bangladesh has wisely chosen not to support China in its current border war or in its ongoing rivalry with India internationally.
For Bangladesh, keeping a balanced relationship is not a cakewalk, but walking on broken glass barefoot. For the cheerleaders on the Chinese side in Bangladesh, they should well remember that, despite its very close relationship with Pakistan, China did not step to assist its friend in 1971.
Had it stepped in, our history probably would have been different. China will never step in if Bangladesh were to be a drawn into a conflict with our immediate neighbour. It will not scale the mountains to save another distant neighbour. So, for us, it will be wise to let our economic and trade relationship with China grow and promote it.
Let us remain pragmatic in our foreign relationships and see which side of our bread is buttered.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.