Bangladesh PM arrives in China on ‘balancing’ visit following India trip

Jesmin Papri
Bangladesh PM arrives in China on ‘balancing’ visit following India trip Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina walks on the red carpet upon her arrival at the Beijing Capital International Airport, July 8, 2024.
[Handout Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha]

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina arrived in China for a state visit on Monday, about two weeks after a similar trip to India, with experts saying her government was performing a strategic balancing act between the rival Asian giants.

While in Beijing, Hasina will seek a U.S. $5 billion (587 billion taka) loan, which would help assuage China’s feelings after Bangladesh expressed a preference for New Delhi’s recent offer on helping manage the Teesta river’s waters, to a Chinese project planning the same, diplomatic observers say.

Dhaka is “finely balancing between two big powers for her perceived national interests,” Munshi Fayaz Ahmad, a former Bangladesh ambassador to China, told BenarNews.

A cornerstone of Bangladesh foreign policy is “friendship to all, malice to none,” he said.

“We have historic ties with India. India is our first neighbor. We are deeply dependent on each other on many issues. But India cannot meet all of our development endeavors,” Ahmad said. 

“[But] no single country can meet our development assistance needs, which China does. So, we need China. But we [also] need India, we need the U.S.”

Hasina’s China visit through Thursday comes at the invitation of  Chinese Premier Li Qiang, while her June 21 two-day visit to India was at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation.

Other than negotiating for the $5 billion loan, China and Bangladesh do not plan to sign any agreements during Hasina’s trip, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Hasan Mahmud told reporters on Sunday. 

Extending a loan to Bangladesh would benefit China as well, according Md. Tauhid Hossain, a former foreign secretary.

“China commands a huge amount of money. … Bangladesh needs a hefty amount of finance to overcome the ongoing economic crisis,” he told BenarNews.

“China is ready to offer loans to Bangladesh for two-way gains: They will get interest. … At the same time, Chinese influence in Bangladesh will increase, too.”

Indian Border Security Force (BSF) personnel use a speedboat to patrol along the Teesta river on the border with Bangladesh near the Barun post some 80 kms (49.7 miles) from Siliguri in the Indian state of West Bengal, on July 3, 2016. [Diptendu Dutta/AFP]

Meanwhile, Dhaka has said it would first consider New Delhi’s proposal over Beijing’s on the management and conservation of Teesta river waters that India and Bangladesh share, for the resolution of a longstanding dispute.

“Teesta is a common river between Bangladesh and India. India has made a proposal for its management and communicated to us that they will send a technical team in this regard,” Mahmud told journalists on Sunday about New Delhi’s proposal during Hasina’s trip there last month.

“As this is a common river, we have to consider their proposal first, naturally.”

Bangladesh and India have been in negotiations to share the waters of the Teesta, a river entering Bangladesh via India’s West Bengal state, since the early 1950s, but a water-sharing agreement has yet to be signed.

A big obstacle has been the state of West Bengal – rivers are a state subject in India. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has said that her state would suffer if the Teesta’s waters were divided.

With water-sharing deals repeatedly falling through, a frustrated Bangladesh in 2019 turned to China for help according to local news reports

In 2020, Beijing presented the $1 billion Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration project, which raised alarms in New Delhi because of the potential proximity of the enterprise to the Indian border. 

Former Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Hossain noted that China has since begun to rethink its involvement in the project, although he did not say why. A Bangladesh newspaper in 2022 quoted the then-Chinese envoy as saying that “some sensitivities that we sensed” had led to Beijing being a bit reluctant.

“China has come to understand that they alone cannot implement the Teesta development project. But Beijing would ask for a clear cut response from Dhaka on the Teesta project because Bangladesh [had] requested China to implement the project,” he said.

“Bangladesh will try to compensate in some other ways if China is unhappy about our position on the Teesta.”


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