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The Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. Photo: AFP

Why was Bangladesh ‘warned’ by China against joining the Quad?

  • The remarks came as a surprise given Dhaka’s status as a small player in Indo-Pacific security
  • But observers say the warning relates to the strategic contest between Beijing and New Delhi for influence in South Asia
To analysts on South Asia, China’s warning to Bangladesh earlier this week against joining the four-member Quad alliance was surprising because Dhaka could hardly be considered a consequential player in Indo-Pacific security.
Kanwal Sibal, who served for 36 years in India’s foreign service, said Bangladesh had no worthwhile navy and would not be able to contribute to maritime security. He had not heard of any talk that Bangladesh had been invited to join the Quad, he said.
The Quad, comprising the United States, India, Australia and Japan, has pledged closer cooperation on maritime, cyber and economic security amid China’s rising influence in the region. Beijing has cast it as a “clique” that could start a new Cold War and has been increasingly concerned about the grouping’s expansion to include other countries.

Thus, Sibal surmised, the comments were to “warn Bangladesh not to draw too close to India at China’s cost, including in connectivity projects eastwards along with India and Japan”.

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Ali Riaz, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Illinois State University, referred to signals from the US last year when then Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun visited Dhaka and highlighted Bangladesh’s importance to Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

“The comment of the Chinese ambassador was a pre-emptive move to deter any future possibilities of Bangladesh joining the Quad,” he said, adding that it was also a way to caution Bangladesh from drawing too close to the US.

Riaz was referring to how China’s ambassador Li Jiming on Monday told Bangladeshi and Chinese reporters that Bangladesh participating in the Quad would “substantially damage our bilateral relationship”. His comments prompted a rebuke from Bangladesh’s foreign minister A.K. Abdul Momen, who said Li’s message was “regrettable” and “aggressive”.

“We’re an independent and sovereign state. We decide our foreign policy,” Momen said, adding that China should not interfere on this front.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying denied any efforts at interference on Wednesday during a regular press briefing, adding that any comments about the Quad were not interventions but aimed at opposing political cliques.

China's Ambassador to Bangladesh Li Jiming (left), Bangladesh foreign minister A.K. Abdul Momen and Health Minister Zahid Maleque pictured on May 12, 2021. Photo: AFP


India has long been wary of China’s military and investment ties with countries in South Asia – an area the former sees as its zone of influence – with suspicions worsening amid an ongoing dispute at their shared border that has shown little sign of easing.

In recent years, New Delhi has sought to ramp up ties with the region through investments in these countries under its “Neighbourhood First” policy. Ties with Bangladesh have grown especially warm and today, New Delhi sees Dhaka as playing a role in India’s ‘Act East’ policy to reach out to Southeast Asian nations by acting as a gateway to the region.

Bangladesh is also working with India to further open up the latter’s northeast regions – that border China – for development, an area that Japan is also interested in.

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Analysts said this point was not lost on Beijing, which saw Bangladesh as an important partner. Dhaka was one of the top three buyers of Chinese arms between 2016 and 2020, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

India’s military establishment is concerned that Bangladesh, which shares the Bay of Bengal with India and Myanmar, could be the site of ports that allow Chinese warships and submarines to dock. The Indian Navy has said it has detected more Chinese ships in waters near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Sibal said Beijing was aware that Bangladesh was hesitant to work on port projects with it because this would be sensitive to India.

This was unlike Sri Lanka which “resisted India more” and where China was more “entrenched”, he said.

Sri Lanka in 2017 offered China a 99-year lease on its Hambantota port, located less than 100 miles from India’s southern state Tamil Nadu, raising security concerns in the Indian establishment. More recently, Sri Lanka’s move to reject an India-Japan proposal to jointly develop the East Terminal of the Colombo port, suspected to be under China’s behest, also sparked alarm.

Sibal said: “It will be enough for India if Bangladesh did not enter into any port collaboration with China as Sri Lanka has done.”

A barge is berthed at the port in Hambantota. Photo: AFP

Riaz, who is also a non-resident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council, a US think-tank on international affairs, said while it was surprising the Chinese envoy had spoken publicly about the Quad issue, it was a follow-up to remarks made by Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe last month.

Wei in a visit to Dhaka, told Bangladesh President Abdul Hamid the two countries should make joint efforts against powers from outside the region trying to establish a “military alliance” in South Asia.

The [Sheikh Hasina] government will continue to walk the tightrope until its absolutely necessary to make a shift
Ali Riaz, Illinois State University

But Shahab Enam Khan, professor of International Relations at Jahangirnagar University near Dhaka, said he did not see the Chinese ambassador’s comments as a threat.

Beijing knew Dhaka’s position and the latter had “clearly indicated its unwillingness to be part of any regional defence alignments”, he said.

But Riaz said while Bangladesh had not made any commitments about the Indo-Pacific strategy as it did not want to jeopardise its relationship with China, Dhaka was indeed hedging.

“The [Sheikh Hasina] government will continue to walk the tightrope until its absolutely necessary to make a shift,” he said.

How will China, South Asia contain the Covid-19 spread from India?

Riaz was also of the view that the Chinese ambassador had felt it was appropriate to make those comments, amid Dhaka’s reliance on Beijing for Covid-19 vaccines.
With India facing its own devastating surge in cases and a shortage of vaccine supplies, leaving it unable to provides its neighbours with doses as promised, countries like Bangladesh and Nepal have reached out to China for help.
On Wednesday, 500,000 doses of the vaccine produced by Chinese firm Sinopharm – that the World Health Organization ( WHO) has approved as safe and effective – were delivered to Bangladesh.

Sibal said India’s current Covid-19 situation did give an advantage to China as Dhaka could not rely on New Delhi, though he said it was unclear if the public would be receptive to Chinese vaccines even after WHO approval “because of the perception that China has undue influence” in the organisation.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: warning to dhaka on quad seen as surprise