Since 2016, China’s economic activity in Bangladesh has attracted criticism from observers in India. The critics feared that Beijing could use trade and investment to influence Dhaka’s decision-making.
The events precipitated a new media cycle, wherein China’s relationship with Bangladesh was described in the context of India’s relationship with China.
It was triggered by a trade concession.
The concession was like export promotion schemes offered by other developed economies. It could limit Bangladesh’s trade deficit, and encourage investment in its export industries.
While Bangladesh had been eligible for the concession for several years, it did not take it up. The concession overlapped with the Asia Pacific Trade Agreement and had stricter rules of origin.
Dhaka’s reservations appeared to fade as the Covid-19 economic slowdown began.
Dhaka likely wanted to encourage domestic sourcing, and higher value exports. This could backstop its effort to become a middle-income country by 2024.
But reporters in India were concerned about the military crisis in Ladakh, and the potential for a wider conflict. To them, it looked like Beijing was currying favor with Dhaka for strategic advantage.
Their reporting inspired a larger discussion in India, and beyond.
A five-part series on the India-Bangladesh relationship.
The line between normal economic activity and security threats became blurry. The wealth of English-language news reporting in Bangladesh couldn’t stem the tide of the foreign media’s insecurity.
Most immediately, foreign commentators overstated the importance of the trade concession.
Analysts in Bangladesh were sceptical of the concession’s benefit. It was unlikely, after all, that exporters would restructure during a pandemic to meet more stringent rules of origin from China.
They didn’t understand that China-headquartered manufacturers were the real winners. The concession wasn’t going to cause H&M or Gap to reroute EU- or US-bound products. It was going to allow Chinese-owned manufacturers to produce more goods in Bangladesh for duty-free export back home.
The misleading spot reporting served as a footnote for deeper scrutiny in the months that followed.
Journalists wanted to know what China’s relationship with Bangladesh meant for India. Commentators discussed Beijing and New Delhi as an either-or proposition for Dhaka.
Their work did not benefit from strong fact-checking or editorial oversight.
Journalists cited investment figures – often between $20 billion and $40 billion – derived from China’s memoranda of understanding pledges since 2016, rather than actualised investment.
They wanted to show Beijing had influence. But MoU pledges are far from a sure bet. They don’t always come through. China’s MoUs don’t explain anything other than market interest and potential.
Others mentioned infrastructure that Chinese firms were building. They glossed over project finance, award and management details which, at times, mischaracterised diversified projects as Chinese.
They wanted to show China’s presence. But Dhaka and multilaterals finance most the work. Bangladeshi labourers, Chinese contractors, and financing from Dhaka doesn’t prove Beijing is calling the shots.
Despite weak analyses, the message was clear: China was a threat and Bangladesh was vulnerable.
It got weird in late July.
On July 22, the prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, called the prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina. The call was reportedly the result of months of diplomacy.
The editor of Bhorer Kagoj, a national Bengali-language daily in Dhaka, described the call in an op-ed, which also described genocidal acts Pakistan committed during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, and made several allegations regarding Bangladesh’s foreign relations.
The op-ed might have gone unnoticed if it were not for The Hindu.
The Hindu made headlines out of the most salacious bits of the op-ed: Hasina had not met with India’s then high commissioner despite repeated requests. This, reportedly, was a problem because “all Indian projects had slowed down” in Bangladesh since Hasina was re-elected in 2019.
Further, Bangladesh had awarded an infrastructure project, the Osmani International Airport terminal expansion in Sylhet, to a contractor from China. India had security concerns about Chinese workers at the project site, roughly 30km from its border.
That was not all.
The article, referencing the Bhorer Kagoj op-ed, alleged that members of Hasina’s office supported a stronger relationship with China, and Pakistan, a supposed ally of China.
The two articles appeared to confirm the fears that surfaced following the trade concession. Publications in India pounced on the allegations described by The Hindu.
An article published by The Print quoted a “top government official” in New Delhi who said, “China is targeting all of India’s friendly neighbors one-by-one.” Further, “official sources” in New Delhi claimed China was pressuring Bangladesh to win projects and “provoke” India .
But the reporting from Bhorer Kagoj and The Hindu didn’t stand up to scrutiny.
Mohammad A. Arafat, the chairperson of Dhaka-based Suchinta Foundation, pointed out that the Bhorer Kagoj op-ed vaguely cited “the Indian media” to support some of its claims. Those sources never materialised. Bhorer Kagoj appears to have removed the op-ed from the daily’s website.
Meanwhile, The Hindu failed to verify Bhorer Kagoj’s sourcing. One article claimed that The Hindu confirmed the allegations from a single source at Bangladesh’s high commission in New Delhi.
Whether the stories were planted, fabricated, or victims of circular reasoning, the tail wagged the dog.
Officials in India and Bangladesh rubbished the reporting. But the information about the airport project leaked into the broader news cycle without scrutiny.
Bangladesh had indeed awarded its self-financed $250-million Sylhet airport expansion to a contractor from China. India had a vested interest though, which was not reported when the contract was announced in March, or when New Delhi’s alleged security concern was reported in July.
India-based Larsen & Toubro had submitted a failed bid for the project.
When later pressed by the media to explain why the project had gone to a Chinese firm, rather than an Indian firm, Bangladesh’s foreign minister said L&T bid too high. He added, “Some newspapers say that we have given more benefits to China, which is completely absurd.”
India and Bangladesh were then negotiating Covid-19 travel restrictions, including evacuation flights, and the suspension of visa processing. Perhaps the foreign minister’s frustration was related.
Still, the countries have had other problems in the sector.
Since at least 2018, India had made informal proposals to buy 52 acres of land from Bangladesh. India wanted the land to extend the runway at Maharaja Bir Bikram Airport in Agartala, which sits on the countries’ border, approximately 160 km south of the Sylhet airport project.
When commenting on the bid in 2019, Bangladesh’s home minister said, “Why should I give any Bangladeshi land to India? There should be no question about it.”
The airports at Sylhet and Agartala would be competing for traffic in the same region.
The Sylhet airport project looks more like a missed opportunity for L&T, rather than a Chinese ploy, in a sector where India and Bangladesh had not fostered much goodwill.
The frequency with which context has gone missing in reporting from India on other countries has become a talking point. Several opinion–makers have called for more area study programmes, journalists posted abroad and humility in public discourse. This could help stem misperception, particularly on neighbours, like Bangladesh, and larger powers, like China.
In-country experience can nurture perspective that help journalists incorporate nuance in their work. But more rigorous open-source research can help too.
For example, reporting on the Teesta River Management Project showed how a deeper understanding of source material can contribute to more accurate reporting.
When reports emerged in August that Dhaka would receive financing from Beijing for the project, it was difficult to find the drama that had, until then, defined reporting on the China’s economic activity.
The agreement had all the false flags a polemicist could want: a nearly $1 billion loan from China; a project designed and managed by a Chinese state-owned enterprise; work sites near to Bangladesh’s border with India; a scare natural resource shared by India and Bangladesh.
Yet, few claimed the agreement reflected Chinese machination. There weren’t questions about why the project hadn’t been awarded to an Indian firm.
In contrast to trade concession in June, and the diplomatic intrigue in July, many observers in India were familiar with the region’s well-publicised history of water management disputes.
And there was no way to spin it: India and Bangladesh hadn’t been able to reach a Teesta river agreement in nearly 40 years. It’s led to years of economic deprival and environmental degradation.
The last meaningful effort to reach a water sharing agreement was made in 2011.
At that time, the Hasina government had a working agreement with India’s then Congress government. West Bengal’s chief minister scuppered the deal.
When Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister in 2014, Bangladesh appears to have pressed the issue again. Modi pledged in 2017 to broker an agreement within his first term.
That agreement never materialised.
The absence of a water-sharing agreement exacerbated economic and environmental problems. After decades of neglect, Bangladesh needed to dredge stilt from the river, and reclaim land along its banks.
The country sought financial support for this project from its development partners, including the World Bank, and the Japan International Cooperation Agency.
But with no support forthcoming, the country had one last option – China
In 2016, the Bangladesh Water Development Board and Power Corporation of China signed an MoU for a feasibility study and river management masterplan. The Power Corporation of China was then commissioned to work on the proposed Teesta River project in 2019.
Reports suggest Bangladesh will invest $130 million, and China will provide another $983 million. The project is expected to create $2.9 billion in value for Bangladesh.
Whether foreign reporters and commentators had a better understanding of the politics surrounding the Teesta river, or were able to consult a wider array of sources due to past coverage, reporting on the project used more precise language, and open-source information, than more opinionated coverage on China’s other economic activities in Bangladesh.
Teesta river reporting described Dhaka’s decision-making process more accurately. Dhaka sought to work with long-standing bilateral and multilateral partners before turning to Beijing, a new partner.
Dhaka only entered into an agreement with Beijing after New Delhi failed to show its bona fides, and two of its largest financers, the World Bank and JICA, were unable to support a potentially politically-sensitive river reclamation project.
It wasn’t a one-off exercise – this is how Dhaka works with its foreign partners.
Dhaka prioritises relationships with trusted partners, but pursues self-interests under the principle of “friendship towards all, malice towards none”. It’s a principle that was set out by the country’s founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was undoubtedly inspired by US president Abraham Lincoln.
That isn’t altogether different from New Delhi’s approach to the world.
Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s foreign minister, has written that India should advance “national interests by identifying and exploiting opportunities created by global contradictions”…“to extract as much [sic] gains from as many ties as possible”.
What is acceptable for India, then, is not always acceptable for Bangladesh.
This is why the media questions Dhaka for working with Beijing. They don’t believe Dhaka has the right stuff. Increasingly, though, it’s clear this view is born out of bad faith.
This is the first in a five-part series on the India-Bangladesh relationship. Read the rest of the series here.
Adam Pitman is an analyst and editor based in South Asia. His Twitter handle is @ar_pitman
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