Bangladesh: Close to India but expecting benefits from China

Bangladesh: Close to India but expecting benefits from China


16 | 04 | 2024


After her re-election, President Sheikh Hasina will keep balancing between Delhi and Beijing, with a convenient preference for the direct neighbor

En la imagen

Sheikh Hasina met Narendra Modi during her 2019 visit to India [Indian Gov.]

Bangladesh is in a strategic location between India and China. Although surrounded by India and not having direct border with China, Bangladesh keeps balancing between Delhi and Beijing. Historically closer to India, Bangladesh sees China as a useful counterweight. The re-election in January of President Sheikh Hasina, from the Awami League, means a progressive approximation to its neighbor, without risking a good relationship with China.

Bangladesh is the 5th largest country in Asia in terms of population, with more than 172 million people. Since its independence in 1971 from West Pakistan, it has demonstrated its support to regional cooperation, being one of the original members of SAARC (1985), currently the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation or BIMSTEC. Bangladesh is currently hedging between India and the PRC, trying to achieve benefits from both without choosing a specific ally. For this, regional cooperation and connectivity is a major part of its foreign policy. It could be considered by some as the current “epicenter of the key regional and sub-regional frameworks.” Bangladesh is benefiting from its geographical position and promoting it in its foreign policy.

2024 elections

Bangladesh’ democracy and elections have been delegitimized since the last elections in 2018, due to violence and credible allegations of fraud. In addition, corruption and limited bureaucratic transparency have weakened the government’s accountability. Data shows that, while Bangladesh has elections, it cannot be classified as a democracy, but an electoral autocracy. The democracy index in Bangladesh is not the lowest in Asia, but it has a score of 5.9 out of 10 (2023), that has been decreasing since recent years.

In theory, the 2024 elections were supposed to be held between Sheikh Hasina from the Awami League and its main opponent, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). It is important to mention that a great number of the population didn’t go to vote, having a turnout of only 40%, and even this number is seen as inflated by some critics. In the last election, held in 2018, the turnout was more than 80%, seeing clearly the difference between the two.

In relation to that, what characterized the 2024 election was the controversy surrounding it. The BNP, the main opposition of the Awami League, demanded the resignation of the government ahead of the election, as well as the appointment of a caretaker government to oversee the election, in order to achieve a neutral result. However, Hasina refused this idea and continued as president during the period. As a consequence, the BNP chose to avoid collaboration of any type with the government, promoting it to the citizens and asking them not to vote. In the months before January, BNP’s leaders, supporters and activists were arrested, provoking unrest and rallies that ended with several people dying and many injured.

The situation has also been criticized by international actors, condemning the actions of the Awami League as “not free or fair.” Some of those who have commented on the violence and boycotts surrounding the election have been UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, the United States or the United Kingdom.

Nevertheless, and as it was expected, Sheikh Hasina won the election and started her fifth term in power. She is considered by some of her supporters to have provided political stability in the country during the time she has been in power (from June 1996 to July 2001 and, then consecutively since the 2009 elections), even though this last election has put that idea in doubt.

Foreign policy

As mentioned above, the results of the January elections made, once again, Sheikh Hasina president of Bangladesh. As a result, the changes in how she conducts the government, and more specifically the Bangladesh’ foreign policy, won’t present much change. However, it is true that some effects must be mentioned.

The Awami League, unlike the BNP, is in favor of a positive and developed foreign policy. Its foreign policy is predicated on “democratic values, economic dynamism, multilateral engagement and upholding international law and institutions.” As it has been proven before with resolutions and agreements with neighboring countries, the government of Hasina is committed to address regional challenges through diplomacy and arbitration. It is clear that the party has made immense efforts to improve and secure the position of Bangladesh in the region as one of the countries to look for regional cooperation.

In addition, the Awami League is considered to be pro-Indian in terms of its foreign policy. India saw the possibility of the BNP winning as a concern for the return of Islamists, which could have been a disadvantage in the relation between both countries, with the rise of insurgent groups in Bangladesh (as it has happened before). Indian policy makers have stated, since the re-appointment of Hasina, that the win is going to be very beneficial for India. The country wants easy access and road and river transport for some of its states through Bangladesh.

Both countries see the other as a security ally and a strategic partner. For India a close relation with Bangladesh is very significant. India’s partnership with its other neighbors (Pakistan and China) tends to be difficult and tensions and disputes are not unlikely in their respective borders. Since the appointment of Hasina in 2009, their ties have greatly improved and turbulence has ceased to exist. Because of this, it is likely that during this next term, Bangladesh and India will continue to improve their connections and cooperation, and possible agreements between them could be expected.

It was said above that Bangladesh holds a hedging position between China and India. We could expect, after the election results and how Bangladesh and India are rapidly improving their partnership, that this situation would come to an end. However, this is not likely to happen. Before and after the election, the PRC has welcomed and supported Hasina’s reelection, with Xi Jinping sending a message to congratulate Hasina on her appointment.

For Bangladesh, China is key for the development of economic projects or the military army: it is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its first submarine base has been financed by Beijing and recently there has been some discussion over a new project. China is one of Bangladesh’s biggest investors: between 2016 and 2022, state-owned and private Chinese companies have invested almost $26 billion in Bangladesh, which have helped to improve energy, connectivity or even human resource development projects. Because of this, it is very unlikely that Hasina will sever ties with the PRC since, by doing it, the country would lose a major investor and would probably see its economy and development decrease.

All in all, Bangladesh is going to have to learn how to grow closer to India, while also maintaining its economic fundings from China and taking support from it. That is why, Bangladesh is likely to continue to be that of hedging between India and China because of the benefits that it gains from both. However, a more proximate relationship with India, that may cause its eventual separation from China due to differences in goals. could be expected.