Bangladesh has witnessed a 9% rise in per capita income for the year 2020-2021 (its per capita income was estimated at 2227 USD, and it surpassed India’s GDP during 2020-2021 which was 1,947 USD ). The World Bank has revised Bangladesh’s GDP growth for 2020-2021, as a result of higher than expected remittance flows (while earlier it had predicted that the South Asian nation’s GDP would grow by 1.7% it has revised estimates to 3.6%). In recent years, Bangladesh has witnessed stellar growth rates – in 2019 for instance, the South Asian nation grew at 8.4%.
Bangladesh’s assistance to Sri Lanka and India: Importance in terms of symbolism
Two recent developments reiterate the point that Dhaka is keen to send out a message that it is not satisfied with its economic rise, but wants to enhance its overall clout in South Asia; firstly, Bangladesh has agreed to provide a currency swap of 200 Million USD to Sri Lanka for a period of three months. Sri Lanka had received assistance from China in 2020 (this includes a 1 Billion USD Loan, a currency swap of 1.5 Billion USD) and in 2020, India had also extended a credit swap of 400 Million USD to the Island nation.
It would also be pertinent to point out, that Bangladesh is also amongst the 40 countries which had provided assistance to India in the second wave of the pandemic. The South Asian nation provided India 10,000 vials of Remdesivir when the second wave of covid19 was at its peak. Apart from Remdesivir, Bangladesh had provided PPE kits and zinc, calcium, vitamin C and other tablets.
While in terms of magnitude, Bangladesh’s assistance to Sri Lanka may not be significant, it sends an important message both within the region, and outside of Bangladesh no longer being in India’s shadow (Bangladesh’s currency reserve at the end of April was 456 Billion USD). Similarly, Dhaka’s support to India during the covid19 pandemic is extremely important in terms of symbolism.
Bangladesh seeking to strike a balance between China and India
The country’s economic growth has given it space to cultivate strong ties, and its recent response to the remarks made by a Chinese diplomat, show that while maintaining cordial relations, it is unlikely to kowtow to China . The Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh, Li Jiming in a virtual address to the members of Diplomatic Correspondents Association, Bangladesh (DACB) last month said that the China-Bangladesh would be adversely impacted in case Bangladesh joined the Quad . Said the Chinese Diplomat
“Obviously it will not be a good idea for Bangladesh to participate in this small club of four because it will substantially damage our bilateral relationship,
The Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen responded strongly to the Chinese diplomat’s remarks. Said Momen:
as a sovereign country, Bangladesh will determine the course of its foreign policy in the interest of its people”
There is no doubt, that Bangladesh’s economic relations with China have strengthened (both countries aim to push bilateral trade to 18 Billion by 2021). In 2016, both countries also changed their relationship into a strategic one when a deal was signed between Bangladesh PM, Sheikh Hasina and Chinese President, Xi Jinping. China is also investing heavily in Bangladesh’s infrastructure sector, and has emerged as one of the countries leading development partners.
At the same time, Bangladesh’s relations with India have also witnessed an upswing. Bangladesh is India’s largest trading partner in South Asia, in 2019-2020 bilateral trade between both countries was estimated at 9.45 Billion USD. Apart from trade efforts have also been made to enhance connectivity – rail, maritime and road.
Bangladesh’s relevance beyond South Asia
Bangladesh’s importance can also be gauged from the fact, that the US has also sought to include Bangladesh in its Indo Pacific Vision (A former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger had ironically called Bangladesh a basket case). US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken spoke to the Bangladeshi Foreign Minister, AK Abdul Momen in February 2021.
‘Good to speak with Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen and congratulate him on Bangladesh’s 50th anniversary of independence. We affirmed the strong, enduring U.S. -Bangladesh relationship and look forward to working together to address challenges in South Asia and the Indo-Pacific,”
Beijing has not been very happy with the idea of Bangladesh joining the Quad and emerging as an important player within the Indo-Pacific. While Dhaka can not ignore China, it would like to increase its strategic relevance in the broader Indo-Pacific region.
Recent developments clearly reiterate a few points; First, that the economic landscape of the region is witnessing a significant shift. Second, once countries progress economically, like Bangladesh has, they can navigate geo-political complexities far better and can not be compelled into making binary choices. India thus has a stake in the economic progress of its neighbors in the South Asian region, and this should not be based on any conditionalities or merely in response to China’s outreach to countries in the region.
In conclusion, some of the recent developments discussed earlier in the article reiterate the growing importance of Bangladesh not just in the context of South Asia, but globally. Other countries in the neighborhood, would do well to emulate Bangladesh’s focus on economic growth, as this will ensure that no country can meddle in their domestic affairs and dictate their foreign policy.