11th July 2024 – (Beijing) China and Bangladesh have elevated their bilateral relations to a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership. This landmark decision, announced during Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to Beijing, marks a new chapter in the complex tapestry of South Asian international relations.

The meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Hasina in Beijing on Wednesday was more than a mere diplomatic formality. It represented a calculated move by both nations to strengthen their ties in an increasingly complex geopolitical landscape. As China continues to expand its influence in South Asia, and Bangladesh seeks to maintain its delicate balancing act between regional powers, this upgraded partnership carries profound implications for the region’s future.

President Xi, in his remarks during the meeting, emphasised the long-standing nature of China-Bangladesh relations. “China and Bangladesh are good neighbours who know each other well and have had friendly exchanges for thousands of years,” he stated. This historical context serves as a foundation for the newly elevated partnership, which both leaders hope will set an example of friendly exchanges and mutually beneficial cooperation between countries, especially within the “Global South.”

The timing of this diplomatic upgrade is particularly noteworthy, coming just ahead of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Xi expressed China’s willingness to use this milestone as an opportunity to deepen high-quality joint construction of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and expand cooperation across various fields.

At the heart of this enhanced partnership lies a commitment to closer economic cooperation. During her visit, Prime Minister Hasina attended the “Bangladesh-China Business, Trade and Investment Summit,” where she encouraged Chinese businesses to invest in key sectors such as energy, renewable energy, and logistics centres in Bangladesh.

The summit saw the signing of numerous agreements, including memorandums of cooperation between industry giants like Huawei and the China National Chemical Engineering Group Corporation with Bangladeshi delegates. These agreements underscore the economic underpinnings of the strengthened bilateral relationship.

Dr. Mahbub Ullah, Professor of International Relations at the University of Dhaka, notes, “The economic dimension of this partnership cannot be overstated. For Bangladesh, Chinese investment and expertise in infrastructure development are crucial for our economic growth ambitions. For China, Bangladesh represents a significant market and a strategic partner in its Belt and Road Initiative.”

Indeed, the numbers speak for themselves. From January to May 2024, China-Bangladesh bilateral trade amounted to 74.91 billion yuan ($10.30 billion), showing a slight growth of 0.2 per cent year-on-year. China remains Bangladesh’s largest trading partner, and Chinese investment in Bangladesh had reached nearly $1.4 billion by the end of 2023, with nearly 700 Chinese-funded companies creating over 550,000 jobs in the country.

While the economic benefits of this partnership are clear, its geopolitical implications are more nuanced. Bangladesh’s closer ties with China come at a time of heightened tensions between China and India, the latter traditionally seen as the dominant power in South Asia.

Some Indian media outlets have viewed Hasina’s visit to China with concern, portraying it as “a balancing act to keep the two key players happy.” However, experts argue that the development of China-Bangladesh ties does not necessarily target any third party.

Qian Feng, director of the research department at the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University, explains, “China always opposes zero-sum games and stands for mutually beneficial cooperation. The development of China-Bangladesh relations provides a valuable choice for Dhaka to better safeguard its diplomatic independence and development opportunities.”

This sentiment was echoed in the diplomatic language used during the visit. Both Xi and Hasina emphasised mutual respect and non-interference in internal affairs. Xi stressed China’s support for Bangladesh in “adhering to an independent foreign policy” and “opposing any external interference.” In return, Hasina reaffirmed Bangladesh’s commitment to the one-China principle and its support for China’s stance on the Taiwan question.

Beyond bilateral relations, the upgraded partnership between China and Bangladesh has implications for regional stability and development in South Asia. Hu Zhiyong, a research fellow with the Institute of International Relations at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, argues that “the development of bilateral relations between China and Bangladesh promoted by Hasina’s visit will be conducive to the overall peace and stability in South Asia.”

This view is supported by the nature of the agreements signed during the visit. The 21 instruments signed between the two countries cover a wide range of areas, including economic and banking sector cooperation, trade and investment, digital economy, infrastructure development, and disaster management assistance. These agreements have the potential to contribute to the overall development of the region.

Moreover, the partnership provides a model for other South Asian countries in their engagement with China. As Qian Feng notes, “The pragmatic cooperation between the two countries is an illustration for more South Asian countries to understand China’s concept of good-neighbourly friendship, the idea of sharing the fruits of development, and the image of China as a responsible major power.”

While the elevation of China-Bangladesh relations represents a significant diplomatic achievement, it is not without its challenges. Bangladesh, like many developing nations, must navigate the complex waters of international relations carefully, balancing its relationships with major powers like China, India, and the United States.

The country’s growing economic ties with China, particularly through the Belt and Road Initiative, have raised concerns about potential debt traps. Bangladesh’s request for a reduction in interest payments on Chinese loans during this visit underscores these concerns.

Furthermore, the geopolitical implications of closer China-Bangladesh ties may put pressure on Bangladesh’s relationships with other regional powers, particularly India. Managing these relationships will require deft diplomacy from Bangladesh in the coming years.

Looking ahead, the success of this comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership will depend on how effectively both countries can translate their diplomatic commitments into tangible benefits for their people. For Bangladesh, the key will be leveraging Chinese investment and expertise to drive economic growth without compromising its strategic autonomy. For China, the partnership offers an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to mutually beneficial cooperation and to counter-narratives of debt-trap diplomacy.