In the previous month, Indian media outlets reported that India is concerned with the growth of Chinese influence in Bangladesh and is seeking to send a ‘message’ to Dhaka in this regard. These reports coincide with the growing intensification of the Sino–Indian geopolitical competition in South Asia and beyond. Taking into account the tectonic shifts in global geopolitics, Bangladesh is navigating its relations with New Delhi and Beijing with the utmost caution. However, the fundamental and nuanced differences between the Indo–Bangladeshi and Sino–Bangladeshi partnerships have to be understood in clear terms.
First, Bangladesh emerged as an independent state through the War of Liberation against Pakistan in 1971. Back then, India fully supported the Bangladeshi cause, hosted the Bangladeshi government-in-exile, sheltered nearly 10 million refugees from Bangladesh, trained and equipped the Bangladeshi freedom fighters, passionately promoted the Bangladeshi cause before the international community, and finally, entered the war on behalf of Bangladesh. Through these actions, India contributed immensely to the independence of Bangladesh. In addition, at least 1,984 Indian soldiers were killed while liberating Bangladesh.
Accordingly, several high-ranking Bangladeshi officials, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdul Momen, the Minister of Information and Broadcasting Hasan Mahmud, and the Minister of Liberation War Affairs Mozammel Haque, have emphasized that Bangladesh and India share ‘blood ties.’ On the other hand, several senior Indian officials, including the former President Ram Nath Kovind and the current Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, opined that the ties between New Delhi and Dhaka were ‘forged in blood.’
On the other hand, China opposed the independence of Bangladesh, equipped the Pakistan Armed Forces, strongly condemned Indian involvement in the War of Liberation, and refused to recognize Bangladesh as an independent state until 31 August 1975. So, from a historical perspective, Bangladesh is closer to India than China.
Second, Bangladesh shares a 4,156-km-long land border with India, and is geographically India-locked, as its territory is surrounded by Indian territory on three sides. Owing to geographic proximity, Bangladesh and India are very important for each other in terms of ethno-religious overlaps, cross-border trade and internal security issues. Meanwhile, Bangladesh does not share any physical border with China, and consequently, Dhaka and Beijing do not share such geographically-induced ties with each other. So, geographic reality dictates that Bangladesh maintains a closer partnership with India than with China.
Third, with regard to Bangladesh’s political ties with India, the two principal political parties in Bangladesh generally hold contrary views. The incumbent Awami League has traditionally been viewed as the proponent of a stronger Indo–Bangladeshi partnership, while the attitude of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) towards India is more mixed and complex. But in reality, relations with India have always been a very important segment of Bangladeshi foreign policy, irrespective of the party in power in Dhaka. However, with the rise of the Awami League to power in 2009, the Indo–Bangladeshi political partnership has consistently moved along a positive trajectory.
Bangladesh has provided crucial assistance to India in curtailing the insurgencies in northeastern India by extraditing senior insurgent leaders to the Indians and dismantling the support network of those insurgent groups inside Bangladesh. Also, Bangladesh and India resolved their land boundary and maritime boundary disputes through peaceful means. In addition, Bangladesh provided India with transit and transshipment facilities, ensuring increased and cheaper connectivity between the Indian mainland and northeastern India. The recent unrest in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur and its potential connections with the recent violence in the Chattogram Hill Tracts demonstrate that the security of India and Bangladesh are intertwined.
At the same time, Bangladesh has developed a positive political relationship with China in order to meet Bangladesh’s requirement for development partners. However, the Sino–Bangladeshi partnership has not grown at the expense of the Indo–Bangladeshi partnership. Bangladesh does not constitute a part of the traditional Chinese sphere of influence. In addition, owing to the absence of geographic contiguity between Bangladesh and China, Dhaka’s security is not inextricably linked with that of Beijing. Hence, Dhaka’s political partnership with India is qualitatively more important for it than its political relations with China.
Fourth, Bangladesh shares strong economic ties with India, with India being the second-largest trading partner for the former. Bangladesh imports large amounts of food, cotton and hydrocarbons from India, making India a crucial partner in ensuring Bangladesh’s food, economic and energy security. India has invested in several infrastructure and energy projects in Bangladesh, including Maitree Super Thermal Power Plant, the Khulna–Mongla Port Line and the Akhaura–Agartala Rail Line. Meanwhile, Bangladesh is India’s largest development partner and largest regional trade partner.
On the other hand, China is currently the largest trading partner of Bangladesh, 97% of Bangladeshi goods have been accorded duty-free access to the Chinese market, and Bangladesh is a part of the Chinese-sponsored Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This irks not only New Delhi but also Washington and Tokyo. However, the Chinese economy is currently the second largest in the world. China is the largest trading partner of more than 100 states, including Germany, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Australia and Saudi Arabia, all of which are close allies of the United States (US). Moreover, China is currently the second-largest trading partner for both the US and India. The extensive economic ties between China and these states have not resulted in these states’ inclusion in the Chinese sphere of influence. So, New Delhi has nothing to worry about the expansive Sino–Bangladeshi economic partnership.
Fifth, China is currently the largest source of weapons for the Bangladesh Armed Forces, and it has sold Bangladesh all types of military equipment, ranging from tanks and armoured personnel carriers (APCs) to combat aircraft and submarines. However, over the years, Bangladesh has sought to reduce its dependence on Chinese weapons. Bangladesh imported 82% of its military equipment from China between 2009 and 2012, while it imported 74% of its military equipment from China between 2018 and 2022. So, Bangladesh’s dependence on Chinese military equipment has declined by 8% in the last 10 years. In an effort to diversify its sources of arms under the ‘Forces Goal 2030,’ Dhaka has sought to procure weapons from other countries, including the US, Germany, Italy, Türkiye, and India. Over the previous years, Bangladesh has augmented its military cooperation with India by seeking to procure Indian-made military equipment, including coastal surveillance radars, for its armed forces and hosting regular military exercises with India.
Last but not the least, some reports speculate that New Delhi is dissatisfied with the rise of pro-Chinese and pro-Islamist elements inside the Awami League, the ruling party in Bangladesh. But such speculations are concerns unsubstantiated by evidence. The recently unveiled Indo-Pacific Outlook of Bangladesh clearly implies that Dhaka has no intentions of being embroiled in the ongoing Sino–US strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific region. Bangladesh’s neutral stance on the issue is congruent with its traditional non-aligned foreign policy orientation.
In addition, Awami League is a secularist political party, and it is committed to the preservation of the prevalent religious and communal harmony in the country. Moreover, in accordance with its declared ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards terrorism, Dhaka has severely curtailed the activities of terrorist groups, and currently the Global Terrorism Index ranks Bangladesh as the country with the second-most improved security situation in South Asia. So, New Delhi should not be overtly concerned about these matters.
In brief, Bangladesh is adhering to a well-balanced and pragmatic external and internal policy in order to ensure its continued socio-economic development. It has built up a strong economic partnership with China to fulfil its economic and infrastructural needs. However, Bangladesh’s partnership with India, cemented in blood, reinforced by geography and bolstered by history and culture, will continue to constitute the most significant bilateral partnership for it.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.