Bangladesh really does not matter, but China is willing to remain a good friend.
The defining moment in Sino-Bangla relations probably came during the killings of 1971, when Beijing chose in its self-interest to side with Islamabad and Washington DC. (Those were the days of Henry Kissinger´s shuttle diplomacy in which Pakistan was acting intermediary.) Besides, India, which was backing the Bangla population, was friendly with the Soviet Union, which, in turn, was not friendly with China.
There are those in Dhaka who remember that the Chinese did not even send a protest note to Pakistan on the massacre of innocents in the east. Realpolitik had won hands down over other ´realities´.
Over the subsequent decades, while it has remained a close and necessary friend of Pakistan, China´s political or strategic stake in Bangladesh has diminished almost to nothing.
“China is a nice, good, helpful friend of Bangladesh. No more, no less,” says A. Rob Khan, Research Director of the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies. “China provides a large quantity of arms to the Bangladesh army though they are not exactly the latest sort. It also trains the army which is a major help.”
The military support, says Rob Khan, is not provided as a strategic package but solely to help “a friend in need”. Indeed, a considerable amount of goodwill is generated by sending cheap guns and bullets for the Bangla armed forces, which the country can barely afford at international market rates.
In return for its goodwill, Beijing gets a few perks as reward, such as Chinese involvement in the building of large-scale projects such as bridges and in mining. China has also developed as a major supplier of industrial and commercial goods to Bangladesh. These are of uncertain quality, and, although there are complaints, a market is ensured to a considerable extent by the low price.
China did not have a presence in Bangladesh till after 1975, when the then Awami League regime fell with the killing of its leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Much of the international politics of that era was decided by the Sino-Soviet rivalry and the Awami League was seen to be squarely in the latter camp. China therefore had reason to welcome the party´s departure from power.
As the memories of 1971 faded, Bangladesh came to regard China as the only country seen to be seriously interested in taking up its cause. Thus, Dhaka has tended to seek Chinese intervention when it has problems with either of its neighbours, India or Burma. This was how Bangladesh brought China to convince Burma to take back the Rohingya refugees back in 1978.
However, the situation vis-a-vis Rangoon has changed over the last two decades, with China buying a massive stake in Burma. Deeply involved with the Burmese military and the mining industry, Beijing is said to have relayed its reluctance to intervene anymore in Bangla-Burmese matters. This is why Dhaka has had difficulty mustering adequate diplomatic assistance in resolving the problems related to the latest Rohingya influx.
The story is not much different in relation to India. Soon after the devastating floods of 1988, Bangladesh is said to have requested China to push its case for a water security regime in South Asia. Beijing, however, refused to lean on India, keen on cultivating a detente with New Delhi.
“China´s link with Bangladesh is on a government-to-government basis. There are no organisations which hold the Chinese brief in this country,” says Rob Khan. The Chinese political presence is almost non-existent, other than a few moribund friendship societies to keep the banner of red memories flying. In fact, the so-called ´pro-Chinese´ politicians who lent support to Gen Ziaur Rahman after he replaced Sheikh Mujib no longer hold on to that identification. They have scattered, joining political parties with agenda as varied as radical to Islamic fundamentalist. These formerly pro-Chinese politicians are basically still anti-India, which is what decides their position. So does China matter? It does, in terms of a cheap armoury and easy-to-access training which keeps the army on its feet. China is said to have kept its hands off the insurgency in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, although the Shanti Bahini had both a pro-China and a pro-India faction. Shantu Larma, the present chief, who signed the controversial peace accord with Prime Minister Hasina Wajed, is an old pro-Chinese Stalinist, and the Shanti Bahini leadership is still in the hands of veteran comrades of the hills.
But China will have none of that. It wants to trade, sell its low-end technology, and stay out of trouble where it has no chance of value addition to its economy. As far as Bangladeshis are concerned, the unsavoury role of China during Bangladesh´s birth does not seem to matter terribly.
“International politics is market- and convenience-driven not ideology-driven and that explains why China´s position has not been that of a superpower in times of our need,” says Muntassir Mamoon, historian at Dhaka University. He adds, “When memories surface or history is discussed, China´s role is noted along with that of Pakistan in negative terms.”
However, says Mamoon, this matter is moot with the new generation of Bangladeshis who are not as bothered by what the Chinese did or did not do a quarter century ago. Nobody cares much about the ideology-driven past. It´s the market-driven present that matters.