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Elections in Bangladesh: Why both India and China are backing Sheikh Hasina

Indian Express (India)
Syed Munir Khasru
January 7, 2024


Fifty-two years after independence, Bangladesh is at an inflection point, both economically and geopolitically. Its increasing economic importance — a $400 billion economy that grew at 7.1% in 2022 — has attracted the interest of major powers who see the country’s growth and stability and partnerships with it as crucial to advancing their own strategic interests in South Asia and the Indo-Pacific region.

The Bangladesh national elections of January 7 have as such become a high-stakes arena for several ambitions to play out — from India’s buffer state priorities to China’s Belt & Road vision, from the strategic interests of the United States to Russian infrastructure interests.

Against the backdrop of accusations of authoritarianism and suppression of political rivals, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is seeking a fourth term in office. The previous elections of 2014 and 2018 were marred by allegations of irregularities.

Bangladesh’s relations with India and China
Both India and China have high stakes in the outcome and credibility of the election process, not only because of their robust economic ties with Bangladesh, but also in the light of their wider rivalry in the region. How Dhaka manages the partnership expectations from the two Asian giants is key, and will be watched internationally.

The support from India in Bangladesh’s war of liberation in 1971 contrasts with China’s backing for Pakistan. Despite this history, pragmatism shapes Bangladesh’s current ties with these neighbours.

Bilateral trade between India and Bangladesh exceeded $15 billion in 2021-22. India recognizes Bangladesh as a vital eastern buffer, and provides critical support in ports and power grid access, essential for national growth. Historical ties and geographical proximity foster a symbiotic trade relationship.

On the other hand, Bangladesh’s two-way trade with China exceeded $25 billion in 2022. Bangladesh aligns strategically with China, which is helping transform its landscape through mega projects. Chinese investments in BRI-financed infrastructure projects have surpassed $10 billion.

Nuanced approach followed by Govt in Dhaka
Bangladesh’s nuanced approach towards India and China reflects the prioritizing of mutually beneficial relationships aligning with national interests over zero-sum strategic affairs.

It leverages socio-economic, trade, and cultural ties with India for growth, but has significant military relations with China. Bangladesh is the second largest importer of Chinese arms. India too gave $500 million credit to Bangladesh for defence imports.

Both Asian giants have made substantial investments in Bangladesh, signifying the pivotal role the country plays in regional dynamics. Key agreements in power, transport, and telecom underscore the high stakes in ensuring Bangladesh’s ongoing success. Some concerns have, however, emerged over the burden of Chinese debt and ecological considerations.

Nevertheless, Prime Minister Hasina’s handling of multiple partnerships has been adept. Her strategic autonomy doctrine, which avoids exclusive alliances, offers smaller neighbours a good example for self-empowerment through cooperation and collaboration with major regional powers.

Her consultative approach on global issues, like the Rohingya refugee crisis, too has elevated Dhaka’s standing with the two Asian giants.

The intersection of geopolitics and economics
In the pursuit of achieving developed nation status by 2041, Bangladesh has strategically harnessed economic and technological strengths of both India and China, balancing ties amid evolving dynamics. It has granted port access to both countries, fostering modernization in Mongla port under the banners of the BRI and Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Corridor (BCIM). A similar cooperative enhancement for Pyra port was undertaken, but India backed out due to the public-private partnership being granted to a Chinese company.

Bangladesh’s Indo-Pacific outlook draft underscores engagement with regional and global stakeholders for human security, connectivity, and the blue economy, while steering clear of geopolitical tensions.

Bangladesh imports Indian electricity which currently stands at 1,160 MW, while enabling about $450 million of Chinese investments into 1,845 MW domestic power generation as of 2021. The surging demand for electricity has necessitated an expansion of supply, and concurrent energy deals with both countries advance converging industrialization interests.

As a smaller neighbour reconciling the interests of regional giants, Bangladesh has simultaneously advanced national agency and cooperation with countries that are each other’s rivals.

Why the Jan 7 elections matter to India and China
The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has boycotted the elections in its push for neutral oversight, a demand that the Awami League (AL) has rejected.

The BNP remains suspicious of Indian support for the ruling party. The AL on the other hand portrays BNP as anti-India, and raises concerns about potential disruptions in the bilateral relationship due to possible disputes over the credibility of the election results.

Both India and China, deeply invested in Bangladesh’s stability, are understandably wary of political and economic risks post-election. China’s $38 billion BRI initiatives depend on the continuity of the AL regime, and India will have to seek alternative strategies if Prime Minister Hasina were to be unseated.

As Bangladesh confronts a potentially combustible electoral climate with far-reaching consequences, it is no wonder that both India and China have thrown their weight behind the incumbent.

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