Author: Asif Muztaba Hassan, Dhaka
China’s combative foreign conduct has many believing that the country has departed from former leader Deng Xiaoping’s philosophy ‘to leave brightness, embrace obscurity, and keep a low profile’ (tao guang yang hui) and is ready to assert it authority internationally. But China’s quiet charm offensive with Bangladesh lends a different character to its diplomacy.
China’s assertive behaviour, especially in the South China Sea, may run contrary to Deng’s philosophy. But as China faces increasing risks and challenges to its interests, it appears as if tao guang yang hui informs Chinese President Xi Jinping’s call for ‘fighting spirit’ in party officials — encouraging them to be bold, test limits, observe and wait for opportunities.
Lu Shaye, China’s Ambassador to France, best embodied this fighting spirit in June 2021 when he claimed ‘in the eyes of the Westerners, our diplomacy is on the offensive and aggressive, but the truth is, it is them who are on the offensive and aggressive. What we are doing is merely justified defence to protect our rights and interests’.
China’s tactics appear reactionary rather than a pre-emptive tool for coercive diplomacy. Neither Xi nor the Chinese Communist Party officials completely reveal the ‘shiny side of the blade’ but successfully communicate their message that China will not back down from a fight. But while the confrontational rhetoric dominates global headlines, Beijing’s quiet and nascent charm offensive often goes unnoticed. China has sought to cultivate and deepen commercial ties with many global players, including Bangladesh.
China’s economic and defence diplomacy surrounds Bangladesh. In addition to being Dhaka’s largest investor, China also agreed to allow duty-free access to 97 per cent of Bangladeshi products in late 2020. In contrast, the United States has consistently denied duty-free access to Bangladesh’s products, despite Bangladeshi diplomats tooth-and-nail lobbying.
Free-trade access largely influences Bangladeshi diplomacy. Many experts even termed Beijing’s charm offensive in Dhaka as the first step towards its coercive diplomacy. Yet China finds itself struggling, and at times failing, to court Bangladesh.
The United States has exported US$110 million worth of arms to Bangladesh since 2010, which is meagre compared to US$2.59 billion Bangladesh spent on Chinese military equipment. Yet in the face of a heated Sino-Indian relationship in 2020, the United States decided to pursue a proactive approach to court Bangladesh by proposing a military modernisation plan, starting with Apache helicopters and missiles. Deeper security cooperation is of ‘mutual interest, with full respect for Bangladesh’s sovereignty and independence of action’, wrote Laura Stone, then deputy assistant secretary with the US Department of State.
Beijing cannot achieve its desired foreign policy goals without respecting Bangladesh’s sovereignty and conduct of its international politics. The Chinese Ambassador to Dhaka, Li Jiming, was reprimanded by Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen when Li warned of ‘damaging’ bilateral relations if Bangladesh chooses to ‘join’ the Quad.
Bangladesh’s foreign policy strength lies in its deep support for neighbour India and increasing engagement with the United States and Japan. From helping Bangladesh achieve liberation to shared counterterrorism efforts — India’s sphere of influence has been longstanding and strong. Beijing understands that it can only go so far with Dhaka and has resorted to building alternative alliances — like the International Forum on COVID-19 Vaccine Cooperation — and waiting for the ‘opportune moment’.
When India halted COVID-19 vaccine exports earlier this year to meet domestic demand, China swooped in, offering 100 thousand jabs as a gift to Bangladesh. Since March 2021, Bangladesh has received 9 million Sinopharm doses from China, with an additional 1.1 million doses as a gift. On 17 August, Bangladesh signed a deal to locally produce 5 million Sinopharm jabs each month.
To counter China’s growing vaccine diplomacy, Washington decided to send both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to Dhaka. Bangladesh has received roughly 5.5 million vaccine doses from the United States as a gift, with 6 million more promised to be delivered by December 2021 under the COVAX initiative. Japan also sent over 3 million AstraZeneca doses in phases to Bangladesh.