By Raheed Ejaz./Prothom Alo
Dhaka, May 1: China has officially apprised Bangladesh of its concern about the US-led four-nation informal strategic dialogue or QUAD that includes India as well. In the interests of continued peaceful development in South Asia, China wants Bangladesh by its side to stand against such a ‘military coalition’ of outside forces. Bangladesh, however, has not responded to China’s proposal.
Foreign ministry officials on Thursday informed Prothom Alo that during his Dhaka visit, China’s defence minister General Wei Fenghe called on president Md Abdul Hamid and apprised him of Beijing’s displeasure with QUAD. He also expressed China’s hope that the two countries could work together against QUAD spreading its dominance in the region.
The strategic coalition comprising the US, Japan, Australia and India, formed to tackle China’s presence in the Indo-Pacific region, is known as QUAD.
China’s defence minister arrived in Dhaka on Tuesday for a visit of around seven and a half hours. Other than calling upon the president, he also met with the army chief. At the start of the visit, the Chinese defence minister visited Dhanmondi Road 32 to pay respects to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. This is the first time that such a high Chinese official paid respects at the Bangabandhu Museum. Even when the Chinese president visited Bangladesh in 2016, he did not go to pay respects at Dhanmondi Road 32.
Diplomatic analysts find it significant that such an important minister of China, the country that opposed the 1971 Liberation War, went to pay respects to Bangabandhu for the first time.
Bangladesh has not officially stated whether the Chinese defence minister discussed the QUAD issue during his talks with the president. However, China’s state-run news agency Xinhua on 27 April night published a report, ‘Bangladesh, China agree to increase military cooperation.’
The report stated that the two sides should make joint efforts for regional peace and stability and to resist outside powers setting up any military coalition in the region.
Foreign secretary Masud Bin Momen, speaking to Prothom Alo in his office on Thursday, said, “I heard that the Chinese defence minister raised the QUAD issue when he called upon the president. He expressed China’s stand on the matter. However, that does not mean that Bangladesh supports what he said. Bangladesh listened to what he had to say. Concerning strategic initiatives, Bangladesh has always maintained that it will join in any initiative with elements of economic development, while upholding the interests of the country.”
Diplomatic sources have said that during his meeting with the president on Tuesday at Bangabhaban, the Chinese defence minister Wei Fenghe showed interest in discussing Beijing-Delhi and Beijing-Washington relations. He referred to last year’s skirmish with India at the Galwan Valley, saying that the situation had deteriorated there as India had violated the boundary laws. However, the two sides had discussed the issue and now peace prevailed along the border.
While upholding the interests of the country, it would not be wise for Bangladesh to enter into any strategy or initiative. After all, peace and stability are essential for the development of the region
Next speaking about Beijing-Washington relations, General Wei Fenghe said the issue had been raised at the virtual dialogue of top QUAD leaders held in March at the initiative of US president Joe Biden. The minister commented that an anti-China coalition was being formed in the name of a free and open Indo-Pacific region. China had no desire to oppose the US initiative, Indo Pacific Strategy (IPS). China wanted continued development in the region and for this, peace and stability was essential. China did not want to go into conflict with anyone. That is why it wanted Bangladesh by its side in the interest of the region’s peace, stability and development.
A government official, however, on condition of anonymity, told this correspondent that the president did not make any comment in response to the hopes or expectations expressed by the Chinese defence minister.
President of the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Strategic Studies (BIPSS), Maj. Gen. ANM Muniruzzaman (retd) on Friday, speaking to Prothom Alo, said, “There are rapid changes apparent in geopolitics in recent times. We must remain alert about this. While upholding the interests of the country, it would not be wise for Bangladesh to enter into any strategy or initiative. After all, peace and stability are essential for the development of the region. That is why it would not be wise for any quarter to take up an aggressive role.”
This retired senior army officer feels that the manner in which QUAD is advancing, it may eventually take the shape of a military coalition. Bangladesh must be cautious so that the Indian Ocean is not totally militarised.
Prior to the visit of the Chinese defence minister, diplomatic and security analysts had commented that at a time when many countries were in turmoil due to the second wave of Covid-19, the Dhaka visit of the defence minister of China, an important partner of Bangladesh in defence cooperation, was significant on many levels. Two weeks before General Wei Fenghe ‘s visit, India’s army chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane paid a visit to Dhaka.
For over a year there have been all sorts of preparations for rapid geopolitical changes in the Indo-Pacific in which Bangladesh is involved too. At the same time, Bangladesh’s defence cooperation with China is steadily expanding. And now, in face of a vaccine crisis, Bangladesh is negotiating with China for the vaccine. During his brief Dhaka trip, the Chinese defence minister, alongside defence cooperation, also discussed vaccine diplomacy and changing geopolitics.
Bangladesh has extensive defence cooperation with China since 1977. Till now, China is Bangladesh Army’s largest source for the procurement of any sort of military weapons. Bangladesh Navy’s first submarine was also purchased from China. Other than the army and the navy, equipment for the air force and the coastguard are also procured from China.
Commenting on the visit of the Chinese defence minister in the changing geostrategic context, former foreign secretary and senior fellow of North South University’s South Asian Institute of Policy and Governance (SIPG), Md Shahidul Haque, on Thursday told Prothom Alo, given the existing realities, Bangladesh should maintain balanced relations with the bigger powers. Changing geo-strategy and the pandemic have pitched the matter of strategic cooperation into fresh challenges. That is why alongside national interests, the benefits of long term relations must also be taken into cognizance in the case of strategic cooperation.
(This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir)