Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s recent trip to China, following close on the heels of her January trip to India, demonstrates Bangladeshi leaders are leveraging the country’s increasingly important geostrategic position vis-à-vis Asia’s two rising powers. India is watching closely and with a certain degree of concern China’s growing interest in establishing links to South Asia, India’s traditional sphere of influence. The U.S., too, must find new ways to partner with Bangladesh – a country with the world’s third largest Muslim population – to encourage democratic trends, steady development of the country’s economy, and efforts to keep Islamist extremists at bay.
According to Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Dipu Moni, during Sheikh Hasina’s trip to China, she gained pledges from China to finance further development of the Chittagong sea port as well as rail links from Chittagong through Burma to Yunnan province in China. Though not specifically in the joint statement between the two countries, this move will give Bangladesh the upgrades it needs to increase productivity and capabilities in Chittagong and give China an access route to the Indian Ocean for its goods. The port of Chittagong in Bangladesh, along with ports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Burma, is often cited as a new outlet for China’s strategic and commercial purposes, giving it access to the Indian Ocean, a counter to Indian influence, and an alternative to the Malacca Straits route.
Yet, in her trip to India in January, Prime Minister Hasina also agreed to the opening up of the Chittagong port to goods shipped to and from India, Nepal, and Bhutan. In addition, the United States has been active in Chittagong with the USS Patriot, a mine countermeasures ship, finishing a week long part call there on March 19. The USS Patriot is already the third U.S. naval vessel to visit Chittagong this year. Thus, it seems Bangladesh is seeking to leverage its strategically located port to bring in as much business, partnerships, and naval visits as possible to increase the country’s economic and political status.
At a multilateral level, press reports indicate Prime Minister Hasina appealed to China to be more active in its observer role in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). In the joint statement, Bangladesh “expressed support for Chinese efforts to enhance cooperation with the SAARC community.”
The U.S. must also remain closely engaged in promoting South Asia regional cooperation, serving as an active observer within the SAARC. Asian allies Japan, South Korea, and Australia also have observer status within the SAARC. In coordination with these Asian allies, the U.S. should encourage South Asia countries to continue to lower barriers to trade, increase mechanisms for consolidating democracy, and improve counterterrorism cooperation efforts.
The increased Chinese engagement in South Asia and visits like that of the Bangladeshi PM to Beijing highlight the need for the U.S. to demonstrate the benefits of its own leadership and influence in the region and to collaborate more closely with India on initiatives that strengthen economic development and democratic trends in the region.