A pragmatic balancing act

Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (center) poses with Indian artists upon her arrival at the Palam Technical airport in New Delhi on Sept 5, 2022. (MONEY SHARMA / AFP)

As Bangladesh PM visits New Delhi, Dhaka makes it clear that it seeks friendly ties with both China and India

A day before her arrival in New Delhi for a state visit, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said on Sept 4 that her nation would maintain a balanced approach in regard to relations with India and China, and that she will not interfere if there is any problem between the two Asian powers.

"Our foreign policy is very clear. Friendship to all, malice to none, which my father, father of the nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman”, had articulated in the past, Hasina said. “And we follow his ideology.”

In an interview with news agency ANI, the Bangladesh leader said she will focus on her people, and seek ways to give them a better life.

In an interview with news agency ANI, Bangladesh PM said she will focus on her people, and seek ways to give them a better life

“And I am always saying that we have only one enemy. That is poverty. So let us work together,” she said.

Leading countries should always address disputes and differences through dialogue, Hasina said, adding that she will not interfere with India-China issues.

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Senior diplomats and experts said the prime minister’s comments, which came ahead of her Sept 5-8 trip to India and following Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Dhaka last month, carry special significance as Bangladesh wants to keep good relations with both China and India. 

“Bangladesh wants to keep both countries happy by providing the same business and investment opportunities, as India and China are major strategic partners” of Dhaka, said Krishna Kumar Saha, a professor of public administration at Comilla University in Bangladesh.

During the four-day visit to India, the Bangladeshi prime minister will call on Indian President Droupadi Murmu and Vice-President Jagdeep Dhankar. According to India’s Ministry of External Affairs, Hasina will also hold bilateral consultations with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. On the calendar is also a meeting with India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

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The trip this week marks the second visit of the Bangladesh leader to New Delhi since October 2019. Last year, Indian prime minister Modi and then Indian President Ram Nath Kovind visited Bangladesh.

Maintaining cordial relationships with China and India and promoting viable economic integration are among the priorities of Bangladesh, said Muhammad Imran, Bangladesh’s high commissioner to India.

Bangladesh sees bilateral visits as opportunities to connect better with the two most powerful economies in Asia for common good and prosperity, the envoy said.

Chinese foreign minister Wang, during his visit to Dhaka in August, told Hasina that Bangladesh was a “strategic development partner”. The minister assured that Beijing will support Bangladesh on all issues at every international forum. Bangladesh, meanwhile, reiterated its support for the one-China policy, in light of the tensions related to the Taiwan region. 

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China has been supporting the construction of a number of infrastructure projects in Bangladesh, including seven bridges before the one on the river Kocha.

On Sept 4, ahead of her trip to India, Hasina virtually inaugurated the 1,493-metre-long eighth “Bangladesh-China Friendship Bridge”, over Kocha river at Bekutia in Pirojpur in southwestern Bangladesh.

Beijing provided nearly $68.92 million as grant to support construction of the $95 million bridge.

Li Jiming, Beijing’s envoy to Dhaka, said on Sept 4 that China will continue to build infrastructure in Bangladesh within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative. The projects include building a ninth bridge.

Bilateral ties between Bangladesh and China increased significantly after Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Dhaka in October 2016. During the visit, Xi and Hasina signed 27 agreements worth billions of dollars, elevating their relationship from a “comprehensive partnership of cooperation” to a “strategic partnership of cooperation”.

Between 2018 and 2020, China has been the top foreign investor in Bangladesh's economic zones, according to the Bangladesh Economic Zones Authority.

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As a neighbor, India has also extended financial help to Bangladesh for various development projects.

Over the past eight years, India extended three lines of credit to Bangladesh amounting to $8 billion for the development of infrastructure in various sectors including roads, railways, shipping and ports, according to Indian government data. 

“If Asia’s two major giants can resolve their differences by regular exchange of dialogue, it will be beneficial for Bangladesh as both India and China are important development partners of Bangladesh,” said Munshi Fayaz Ahmad, a former Bangladeshi ambassador to Beijing, in reference to China-India relations.

Enhanced dialogue can strengthen trilateral relationships and can promote viable economic integration, he said.

Following a scheduled meeting between Hasina and Modi in New Delhi on Sept 6, Bangladesh and India are expected to sign a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement that could further boost bilateral trade. 

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Bilateral trade between the two sides has already increased from $9 billion to $18 billion in the past five years, according to Indian government data.

The writer is a freelance journalist for China Daily.