Bangladesh-China friendship and resolving the Rohingya crisis

Rohingya camps at Cox's Bazar

It was with an attitude of adversity towards Bangladesh that Bangladesh-China relations began in the backdrop of the divided world order during the Cold War. But once China gave recognition to Bangladesh in 1975, there has been no looking back. No matter what government came to power in Dhaka, relations with China remained robust and strong. The two countries have supported each other on the international front. Bangladesh has unhesitatingly supported China in two of its most sensitive areas – Tibet and Taiwan. The Bangladesh-China Friendship Bridge and the convention centre remains visible symbols of China’s friendship. China also has deep ties with the Bangladesh armed forces. Other than providing all sorts of training, China is also a large source of arms and equipment for the three armed forces.

Relations with China have been going from good to better. Needless to say, only China can provide the massive funds required for infrastructure development, no one else

In the 21st century the relationship has taken on slightly different dimensions. Alongside its strong political and military ties, China has also become Bangladesh’s largest trade partner and development partner as well. China is the source of a large chunk of Bangladesh’s mega projects and it is Chinese contractors who are mostly working in the large projects. Of course, not all of this is a blessing. Chinese companies have a propensity to overstep the time on their projects and scale up costs. There are even instances of them taking up new projects while holding up work on another. It is alleged that the Chinese government backs the Chinese companies in such instances.

China’s funding also comes at commercial rates, not like the low interest assistance from Japan or Europe. There are also allegations of corruption in the projects. Despite all of this, relations with China have been going from good to better. Needless to say, only China can provide the massive funds required for infrastructure development, no one else.

In recent times, two issues have put a dampener on relations between the two countries. The first is about Bangladesh, under Indian pressure, moving back at the last moment from the deal signed with China for a deep sea port at Sonadia. The other is China’s all-out support for the genocidal Myanmar junta, rather than for Bangladesh which bears the brunt of the Rohingya crisis. China has always stood steadfast by Myanmar along with a handful of other countries.

Recently the People’s Republic of China celebrated the 72nd anniversary. The Bangladesh-China Silk Road Forum organised a webinar on the occasion, with the Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh as special guest. Speaking at the event, the Chinese ambassador spoke about the wide scope of taking the strategic partnership of the two countries’ cooperation to even greater heights. Minister for agriculture was the chief guest on the occasion. Other prominent and eminent participants were Rashed Khan Menon, Dilip Barua, Hasanul Huq Inu, Mujahidul Islam Selim, Abdul Moyeen Khan and others.

From media reports it was evident that not one of them brought up the Rohingya issue which is Bangladesh’s most complex problem at the moment and for which China is required to resolve. The webinar was all about the deep relations and partnership between the two countries and this was reflected in the ambassador’s words too. China’s active role in resolving the Rohingya crisis would be the most effective tool in taking this partnership ahead. This had been an opportunity for these leaders of the left ilk to politely and firmly give China the message that the people of Bangladesh want China to come forward and resolve this problem. Instead, they dispensed their duties by simply piling up praise for China.

On the same day, two organisations – Association for Land Reform and Development and The Asian NGO Coalition for Agrarian Reform and Rural Development – also organised a webinar on the impact of the influx of Rohingyas into Bangladesh on the peace, environment and stability of the region. Despite there being so many organisations dealing with international relations and security, I have no idea why two organisations dealing with land reforms are getting involved with the Rohingya issue. Anyway, presenting the keynote at the webinar, professor Imtiaz Ahmed said that the solution to the Rohingya problem lies to a great extent with China, Japan and India. There is certainly no doubt that if they wanted, these three countries could get together and resolve the Rohingya problem. If China wanted, it could resolve the problem on its own, particularly in the prevailing circumstances.

On 1 February this year, the Myanmar army chief removed Aung San Suu Kyi from office and took over absolute power. Prior to this, though the power actually lay in the hands of the military, at least there was a civilian façade in front, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi. If China put on pressure then, there was a remote chance that the Myanmar junta might have joined hands with western powers to balance out China. The chance is no longer there in the present circumstances. The military junta is now much more dependent on China for survival. China has the opportunity to work as a coordinator between Bangladesh and Myanmar and to put pressure of Myanmar so that the exiled Rohingyas, victims of ethnic cleansing, can return to their homes as soon as possible. Such a step will not only appease friend Bangladesh, but also play a role in creating stability in Rakhine and a safe environment for Chinese investment. And, in the ongoing geopolitical games, this will also draw the people of Bangladesh closer to the China camp. Will China take this opportunity?

* Md Touhid Hossain is a former foreign secretary of Bangladesh

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir