I exclaimed within myself. China was going to upgrade the Sylhet airport, said a blurb on the Internet. Sylhet is my hometown in northeastern Bangladesh.
Sylhet’s Osmani airport is rather small and every time I fly in to the city, I have to hustle through a crowded arrival lounge into the hurly-burly of a packed parking area. Sylhet, too, is close to the Indian state of Assam, where I was born. I felt good about the prospect of traveling more comfortably from Sylhet to see my friends and relatives in India.
I was browsing through news sites on my laptop in my living room in the Washington suburbs. I now wanted to know more about the airport project and gradually found out, through Google search, that it was a much bigger story than I had thought. The modest $248 million project was just the tip of an iceberg of growing bitterness between Bangladesh and India, and more startlingly, part of a grand Chinese strategy to contain India.
The Chinese venture in Sylhet was big news in the Indian media. Some Indian bureaucrats and pundits were fuming at the Bangladesh government for cozying up to China and giving the airport contract to a Chinese company when India was reeling from its border clash with the Chinese in the Himalayas that killed 20 Indian troops. One commentator pointed to Sylhet being next door to Assam, a caldron of unrest against India. Was the Bangladeshi airport going to be a nest for Chinese spies, fomenting trouble for India in Assam? The Bangladeshi government was ignoring these Indian criticisms and not making secret of serious strains in its relations with India.
A report attributed to the Bhorer Kagoj (Morning paper), a Bengali-language Bangladeshi daily, revealed that for four months the Bangladeshi prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, had been turning down requests for a meeting with the Indian high commissioner (ambassador) to Dhaka, Riva Ganguly Das. Some in the media speculated that Hasina did not want to hear any Indian carping about the growing Bangladeshi-Chinese ties. In mid-July India finally decided to remove its envoy from her Dhaka post.
The relationship between Dhaka and New Delhi had been flustered, as never before, by two apparently anti-Muslim measures adopted by the Hindu nationalist government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A new Indian law provides Indian citizenship to immigrants of all faiths from neighboring countries – with the exception of Muslims. And nine out of 10 Bangladeshis are Muslim. Then a new survey of citizenship status of people in Assam, widely criticized as a Muslim witchhunt, has stripped 2 million Assamese, mostly Muslims of Bangladeshi origins, of their Indian citizenship. As a result, anti-Indian outrage was sweeping Bangladesh, and the Hasina government, which had been chummy with New Delhi, had to downgrade its ties to India to an all-time low.
China obviously lost no time in exploiting the animus between Dhaka and New Delhi and reached out to Bangladesh with largesse. Besides taking up the Sylhet airport project, Beijing is working on other trade and investment ventures in Bangladesh. On June 19 Bangladesh and China signed a trade agreement under which China provides duty-free access to 97 percent of 8,200 Bangladeshi products, an undreamed of bonanza for Bangladesh. Then Beijing signed an agreement with the Hasina government to build a submarine base at the Cox’s Bazar harbor of Bangladesh.
While this was going on, the Pakistani prime minister, Imran Khan, surprised the region by making a widely publicized phone call to his long-estranged Bangladeshi counterpart, Hasina. Khan complained to her about India’s annexation of the Muslim-majority Kashmir state. The call had considerable optical implications. In 1971 India went to war with Pakistan to let Bangladesh (then Pakistan’s eastern province) secede from Pakistan and become an independent state. Ever since, relations between Bangladesh and Pakistan had been on the rocks. It appeared that China’s long arm of diplomacy had got Khan to call up Hasina as part of Beijing’s broader anti-Indian strategy.
Besides Pakistan and Bangladesh, Nepal has also been at loggerheads with India. For years the Nepalese have been accusing India of having illegally annexed three of their territories. The festering feud led Kathmandu to try to wiggle out of India’s economic orbit by courting China. Beijing grabbed the overture enthusiastically, dishing out loans, aid and investments to Nepal. Last year, during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Kathmandu, the two countries upgraded their relationship to a “strategic partnership.”
The Nepali-Indian tensions heated up in May when India opened a new road through the territories claimed by Nepal, which reached the Chinese border. China was not amused. New Delhi also put out a map showing the territories claimed by Nepal are part of India. Nepal responded by publishing its own map showing the disputed territories to belong to Nepal. Indian politicians and news media are accusing China of orchestrating Nepal’s anti-Indian moves. They are branding Kathmandu a Chinese “proxy,” trying to create troubles for India at Beijing’s behest.
China isn’t bothering to deny these Indian accusations. On the contrary, it apparently has decided to put its potentially anti-Indian ducks in a row. On July 27 Beijing held a virtual conference with Pakistan, Nepal and Afghanistan, ostensibly to adopt a four-point plan to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic. But significantly, the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, also discussed plans to boost economic recovery in the region and prodded Afghanistan to get on with Beijing’s global infrastructure project, known as the Belt and Road Initiative. Largest of its kind in history, the BRI is focused on making huge investments in transportation, communication, education, power grid, iron and steel manufacture, and so on. China expects the initiative, involving more than 68 nations, to accelerate economic growth across the Asia Pacific region, Africa and Central and Eastern Europe.
Pakistan was among the first countries to jump into the BRI. Bangladesh and Nepal then joined in. And impoverished Afghanistan is unlikely to pass up the opportunity to embrace the mammoth project that would accelerate its economic growth.
The United States, India, Japan, Australia and some other pro-Western countries have stayed away from the BRI. Some have denounced the project as China’s mega strategy for world domination, a mechanism to financially trap countries into the Chinese orbit. Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros warned governments against joining the venture, calling China a “mortal threat to open societies.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose government had joined the BRI, has dissociated his country from it, citing Chinese persecution of Uighur Muslims.
All the same, China has invested billions of dollars in India’s neighborhood – in Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. It obviously is now using those investments and the lure of the BRI to stitch these countries together into a pro-Chinese albatross around India’s neck.
- Mustafa Malik is an international affairs commentator in Washington.