Surely not a Faux Pas-China warns Bangladesh against Joining the QUAD
Dr Sreeradha Datta, Centre Head & Senior Fellow, Neighbourhood Studies, VIF

It is out in the open and it took a Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh to say it straight. China does not want Bangladesh to join the QUAD. On 10 May 2021, Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh Li Jiming said Beijing-Dhaka ties would be “substantially damaged” if it joins QUAD, while speaking on a virtual programme.1 Not only that the Global Times, largely seen as mouth piece for China further cautioned, ‘if the country falls into the geopolitical trap of the Quad, its economic prospects will accordingly be at risk.2. It is a rather interesting development for a variety of reasons. It is not only inappropriate at various levels it also reeks of high level of insecurity and fears that India and other QUAD members are getting their act together. China is clearly wary about where the QUAD would be heading. And all those who would join this grouping. Losing Bangladesh, a critical partner for China in the South Asian region would be worrisome indeed.

Very briefly, QUAD has been in place for a while now. For years it did not seem anything more than a talk shop. Also given the usual Indian hesitancy to be seen as part of any alliance which is construed as anti another especially, it was assumed this group would not be making much headway. But circumstances changed as did perceptions. It has taken over a decade for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, more popularly known as the QUAD to be seriously considered as a strategic bloc. The first Summit level Meeting in March 2021 amongst the four members India, USA, Australia and Japan held virtually gave the QUAD a lease of life conveying a clear message. From the very inception, QUAD was perceived as a grouping positioning themselves against an assertive if not aggressive China, but the recent Tokyo meeting confirmed the empirical identity further.

While China is a critical trading partner for many of the QUAD members, USA, India and Australia’s recent differences with China have been out in the open, and the global pandemic brought on by China that continues to create havoc in many countries coupled with supply chain issues have led to some serious thinking in QUAD evidently. The convergence of the apprehensions and fears about tackling China was inevitably forthcoming.

Although established in 2004 it held its first meeting in 2007 hosted by Japan under Shinzo Abe gave it the first push. But for long this grouping was not seen to be posing any serious challenge. This group finally got some traction in 2017, in the background of USA’s growing tension with China. China has been extremely critical of this bloc even before the QUAD Foreign Ministers’ meeting that was held in Tokyo in October 2020. Without mincing its words Beijing opposed the formation of an ‘exclusive clique’ harming a third party’s interests.3

Of course no surprises, that the QUAD Joint Statement, aptly titled ‘The Spirit of the Quad’ was a broad based statement about sharing the vision for the free and open Indo-Pacific. It was the first-ever leader-level summit of the Quad, where they pledged to strengthen their cooperation on the ‘defining challenges of our time’. The 700 plus worded statement made no reference to China or any of the bilateral differences (read hostility) that exist. The statement ended with a clear refence to the ‘ambition of these engagements is fit to the moment; we are committed to leveraging our partnership to help the world’s most dynamic region respond to historic crisis, so that it may be the free, open, accessible, diverse, and thriving Indo-Pacific we all seek.’4 So while it did not mention any specifics, it clearly sounded the bell for China. That led to some unprecedented reactions, how else would explain this out of the blue warning to Bangladesh?

While China’s rising global status and massive economic clout has been tactfully used to engage with South Asia and other regions, Bangladesh has been a benefactor of their outreach programmes. In the process, China has established itself as their friendly neighbour and the largest source of funds to underwrite some of the major projects undertaken Bangladesh. It presently enjoys the most comprehensive and robust ties with China straddling a wide spectrum of areas including political ties, economic cooperation and defence assistance.

In the contemporary context, Bangladesh has assumed greater salience given its access to the Bay of Bengal, and with it, a larger access to the Indian Ocean. It was not unexpected that the landlocked Yunnan province of China will seek to establish economic engagement with Bangladesh to access to the Bay of Bengal. Understandably China’s inroads in the Indian Ocean region is without any pretension and its growing naval presence has increased over time and gathered a momentum and partnership with Bangladesh has proved valuable. Within a span of five decades, China has moved from its non- recognition position and became Bangladesh’s closest ally. From 1975 to today, China has become an important neighbour for Bangladesh just as India is as its immediate neighbour. Therein lies the issue.

Undoubtedly, there is a latent rivalry between Beijing and New Delhi in Bangladesh. Spanning infrastructural development to various other economic and trade engagement, to defence and political ties both wish to mark their special relationship with Bangladesh. Not unexpectedly the pandemic gave way to another round of both the Asian power vying for Bangladesh’s attention.

The one aspect that China had limited presence in Bangladesh was in the public health sector, however, the recent Covid 19 pandemic introduced the new element to the bilateral ties. Beijing offered to send 100,000 doses of Chinese coronavirus vaccine to Bangladesh for emergency use on 16 March 2021. In Bangladesh, a Chinese company has been allowed to run the third phase trial of the Sinovac coronavirus vaccine, although it did not agree to co-fund the trial.

India of course spearheaded the COVID efforts in the region especially vis-à-vis Bangladesh to only falter now. The inability to send the promised batch of vaccine caused much chagrin amongst many Bangladeshis but the Chinese Ambassador’s statement has created a furore in Bangladesh overshadowing much of that. To believe that Beijing can sway Bangladesh on some of its core decisions is a gross misreading of this emergent Asian power. Or is China losing the plot? The Chinese reactions reeks of insecurity and anxiety.

While the Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abdul Momen in no uncertain terms has clarified that Bangladesh as an independent and sovereign state decides its foreign policy, the movers and shakers in Dhaka will not let go of this umbrage easily. Beijing mistakenly read Bangladesh’s friendship as compliance. This is a fundamental mistake especially about a nation that has not only a history of standing up to repression but also has overcome a difficult journey for celebrating many landmark economic and political achievements over the course of its 50 years. Bangladesh has always exemplified clarity of choices and to recall briefly, India was not able to change Dhaka’s decision to join the Belt Road Initiative launched by Beijing.

Interestingly, Dhaka has not been invited to join the QUAD nor has the group suggested that it proposes to expand its membership. But that is a matter of minor detail which surely can be sorted out later. For now, Bangladesh is smarting from this rather undiplomatic suggestion by a Chinese diplomat. Indeed, Bangladeshi commentators have often cited the need to include China in many of the regional groupings in South Asia that have often seem stymied for a variety of reasons. Post this incident, there is bound to be some rethinking before similar suggestions are made again.

Endnotes
  1. ‘If Dhaka joins Quad, it’ll harm ties with Beijing, Says Chinese ambassador Li Jiming’, Daily Star, 11 May 2021 at https://www.thedailystar.net/frontpage/news/beijing-wants-dhaka-not-join-quad-2091529
  2. Liu Zongyi, ‘ Wooing Bangladesh to Quad against China not to help Bangladesh devt’, Global Times, 11May 2021 at https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202105/1223193.shtml
  3. K J M Varma, ’China criticises forthcoming Quad Foreign Ministers meet in Japan’, Outlook. 20 Sep. 2020 at
    https://www.outlookindia.com/newsscroll/china-criticises-forthcoming-quad-foreign-ministers-meet-in-japan/1945169
  4. ‘Quad Leaders’ Joint Statement: The Spirit of the Quad’, 12 March, MEA 2021, at
    https://mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/33620/Quad+Leaders+Joint+Statement+The+Spirit+of+the+Quad

Image Source: https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/world-news-chinas-wolf-warrior-warns-bangladesh-against-joining-the-quad/382518

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