Quad Plus? China worries about Bangladesh

Bangladesh, once considered a poor Third World country, ignominiously referred to as a “basket”, is today one of Asia’s fastest growing economies. Today, its per capita income has exceeded that of India and it is a world leader in ready-to-wear clothing exports. With a demographically young population of over 160 million and an impressive human development record, Bangladesh is now considered a country with potential.

Unusual Chinese statement that made the world sit down

On May 12, 2021, Mr. Li Jiming, the Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh, surprised the world, in addition to ruffling Bangladesh’s feathers, with an unusually aggressive statement. She warned Bangladesh that bilateral China-Bangladesh relations would be “substantially damaged” if Bangladesh joined the Quad group – the United States, Japan, Australia and India.

On April 27, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe urged the President, Prime Minister and Chief of Staff of Bangladesh not to join the US-led Quad. A day after Ambassador Li Jiming’s warning, a senior Bangladeshi official called the comments unwelcome, saying Bangladesh would respond to any proposal from any source in accordance with its own foreign policy. Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen told local English daily Dhaka Post that “none of us have been invited to the Quad.” He added, “China is talking about the matter in advance about the US-led four-country security alliance, QUAD. No decision has yet been made regarding the Quad, and Bangladesh will decide as an independent and sovereign country. “

However, it is unlikely that the Chinese ambassador resorted to such assertive remarks without being aware of some credible contributions thereof. Moreover, the news that Bangladesh had been invited to join the Quad may not be unfounded either; Bangladesh could have sent probes to Quad members, or deliberately raised this bogie to check international, regional and Chinese reaction. There is also a strong possibility that China will send a message to the world, especially countries in the Indo-Pacific region, warning them of such measures.[i].

Chinese perception
Beijing has openly criticized the Quad as an “exclusive clique” reminiscent of the “cold war policies” pursued by the United States in an attempt to contain China. The Quad program is guided by the United States Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) which not only extends to Japan, India and Australia, but also intends to appeal to other countries, including members from ASEAN, and South Asian countries such as Nepal and Sri Lanka. China believes that Quad does not respect the global multilateral international system with the UN at its heart, but promotes a world order centered on the United States. Therefore, if Bangladesh joins the Quad, it will be taken advantage of by India, US and others.

China views Quad through a “security lens” with a vision to counter the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and slow / block China’s inexorable growth. On the other hand, Bangladesh is an important ally, given that it is a multidirectional route to the IOR (Indian Ocean region), Myanmar, ASEAN and China. Bangladesh has tended to play the two big neighbors, China and India, opportunistically to obtain as much geopolitical and economic leverage as possible. As China-Bangladesh relations flourished, China sees its substantial overall investment in Bangladesh to have been essential in the latter’s remarkable economic growth. It further assumes that given the geostrategic importance of Bangladesh in the Indian Ocean region, its adversaries, mainly the United States and India, are trying to drive a wedge between the two countries. China has accused the United States of touting the “debt trap” theory in relation to Bangladesh, which is patently false.

India sees Bangladesh as an important country in China’s so-called pearl necklace strategy, which poses a threat to India. The Chinese fear that in addition to endangering the BRI network, Quad will undermine the Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridor (BCIM) which is already experiencing uncertainties. given the tensions between India and China, and Myanmar’s internal instability. China continues to emphasize to all its allies that their partnership is economic and without any geopolitical conditions. The Chinese government and media, after Li Jiaming’s warning, have emphatically pointed out that China does not intend to bring Bangladesh into its “sphere of influence.”

Position of the United States
The United States had put Bangladesh on their geopolitical radar since its turnaround. US Under Secretary of State Stephan Biegun during his visit to Bangladesh in October 2020, said the United States sees Bangladesh as a key partner in its Indo-Pacific (IPS) strategy. Regarding the Chinese Ambassador’s warning, US State Department spokesman Ned Price said, “We have taken note of this statement from the PRC (People’s Republic of China)… what we would say. is that we respect the sovereignty of Bangladesh and its right to make foreign political decisions for itself ”, and“ Regarding the Quad, we have already said… it is a multilateral mechanism. informal, essential which currently brings together like-minded democracies, to coordinate in the Indo-Pacific and fundamentally to advance our goal of a free and open Indo-Pacific region ”.

Bangladesh Perspective
Dhaka considers the Indo-Pacific from a purely economic point of view and also plans to come up with a strategy for the region. Being located in the Bay of Bengal region, Bangladesh wants to be part of the blue economy and is interested in all Indo-peaceful developments. Momen, in a previous interview, had said: “For us, being part of a security alliance as such is difficult because we believe in unaligned policies and we would like it to be so. One of the main reasons for joining the BRI was China’s pledge to provide US $ 24 billion for infrastructure development in the country. The IPS and Quad are said to have helped Bangladesh secure additional funds for development work, improved connectivity and strengthened economic ties with countries in the Indo-Pacific.

The United States is the main export destination and the second largest investor for development activities in Bangladesh. The IPS and the surprisingly fast Quad merger put Bangladesh in a tough spot. Therefore, Bangladesh faces the challenge of balancing its geo-politco-diplomatic-economic relations between the United States, China and India, especially as the Sino-Indian relations have evolved into a relationship conflictual.

Quad India’s takeaway
China has not been disgusted by interfering in India’s strategic backyard, which is very blatantly contrary to India’s strategic and security interests. The geopolitical and economic benefits of having a friendly and aligned Bangladesh as a member of “Quad Plus” are obvious and are not developed. The security dividend will be significant. India and Bangladesh can jointly exploit the opportunities generated by the constant restructuring of regional and global trade and investment relationships, thereby reducing dependence on China. A stable neighborhood and stronger ties between India and Bangladesh enhance internal stability and catalyze India’s “Look and Act East” policy, with Bangladesh being a huge beneficiary.

Why are the Chinese shocked or worried?
As China and the United States increasingly compete for influence, the integration of Bangladesh into the Quad Framework would signal its firm alignments with India and the United States. Beijing is deeply troubled that a “Quad plus Bangladesh” would challenge China’s strategic reach in South Asia and act as a catalyst for a new trend in the region by effectively enabling Quad expansion.

Bangladesh is well aware that Chinese aid and loans are designed to expand Beijing’s influence and tip the regional balance of power, casting a shadow over historically entrenched ties with India. India’s opposition to the BIS, details emerging quickly of China’s ‘debt trap’ diplomacy under the BRI initiative (the experience of Sri Lankan neighbor Hambantota has sounded the alarm within their political regime, the population and the media), have made Dhaka suspicious and more cautious about its relations with Beijing.

Bangladesh has also become a major focus for cooperation between India and Japan with third countries. With BCIM’s future in jeopardy, Japan’s Expanded Quality Infrastructure Partnership (EPQI) has grown, with Tokyo becoming a critical development partner for South and Southeast Asian states. Japan has also implemented an “India-plus approach” to South Asia, building on the strong India-Japan partnership. Bangladesh is considered “the intersection between India and ASEAN”.

China signals its global role
While Bangladesh is undoubtedly emerging as a major player in South Asia with growing strategic influence, it is not essential for China to dominate South Asia, the IOR and the Indo- Peaceful. China’s warning to Bangladesh is clearly a signal that China is now confidently asserting its global role and sending a strong message that it will not sympathetically accept any nation joining an opposing camp, and that there will be a price to pay !

With its economy capping, its own internal strife, its debilitating demographics, the sudden convergence of democratic forces opposing its post-Covid rise, China needs all the allies it can muster like Bangladesh, to achieve ” China Dream ”by Xi Jinping which slowly appears like a pipe dream.

[i] ‘China may have warned Bangladesh against joining Quad, but no one has invited Dhaka ‘, May 12, 2021

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