The first visit by a Chinese President to Bangladesh in thirty years has been correctly described as a milestone in the relation between the two countries. This has assumed an additional significance because of the emergence of China as the second most powerful economy in the world, next to America. This acquisition of greater conomic clout has crucial geo-political implications. Given the overt and covert rivalry between America and China and particularly, in view of the not too subtle attempts by America to sideline China in regional and international affairs, any move by China to forge stronger relations with another country inevitably comes under scrutiny for hidden strategic narrative.
During the whirlwind visit of the Chinese President Xi Jinping to Dhaka, Bangladesh and China agreed to elevate the existing 'closer comprehensive partnership' to 'strategic' level, which is expected to widen, broaden and deepen the engagements between Dhaka and Beijing. To many observers the mention of 'strategic partnership' has appeared as somewhat intriguing and ambiguous. Ordinarily, 'strategic' refers to matters pertaining to security, defence and war. In none of the agreements and deals signed during the visit of the Chinese President there was any overt mention of these connotations of the term except reiterating that the present military co-operation will continue, meaning China will go on selling arms and defence equipment to Bangladesh as in the past. So, what is 'strategic' about the new relationship shaped by the historic visit?
According to Oxford dictionary, 'strategy' means the planning and directing the whole operation of a campaign or war, and secondly, a plan for achieving a major goal. In the absence of any agreements or deals for new military co-operation, the word 'strategic' used in the declaration after the visit of the VVIP should be taken to mean the second part of the above definition, i.e., a plan for achieving a major goal. What can be this major goal in the case in point? For the answer one has to look at the number and nature of the agreements and deals signed, the projects inaugurated and the memorandums of understanding (MoUs) agreed upon. During the visit of the Chinese President, Dhaka and Beijing signed 27 MoUs and deals worth US$ 24 billion. In the government-to-government level, Bangladesh and China signed 27 loans and investment deals worth over US$ 24 billion including one on boosting co-operation in counter-terrorism. Apart from the last, all the other agreements and deals relate to infrastructure development, technology transfer and co-operation in the development of energy sector. On the other hand, in the private sector, 13 deals worth US$ 13.6 billion were signed between Bangladesh and Chinese companies. The Chinese funds that will come as loan will be used in major infrastructure projects such as roads, railways, special economic zones and industrial parks and other areas. Of the signed documents 15 are government-to-government MoUs and deals, while 12 are loans and mutual deals.
The Chinese President and the Bangladesh Prime Minister jointly, unveiled, inaugurated and laid foundation stones of six projects, including inauguration of works on multi-lane tunnel under the Karnaphuli river in Chittagong. The two leaders inaugurated Shah Jalal Fertiliser Company in Sylhet, laid the foundation stones of Bangladesh 4-Tier National Data Centre, 1320 MW Thermal Power Plant at Pyra port, 1320 MW Thermal Power Plant at Banskhali in Chittagong and unveiled Confucius Institute in Dhaka University. Except the last, all the deals, agreements and the projects under them relate to infrastrucutre development and capacity building. The co-operation deals and MoUs signed by both sides also include One Belt, One Road initiative (OBOR), addressing climate change, power and renewable energy co-operation, Silk Road, and co-operation in information technology (IT). Bangladesh put on record its appreciation of China's initiative on the Silk Road and OBOR and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, believing these will bring important opportunities for Bangladesh's goal of becoming a middle-income country by 2021 and a developed country by 2041.
It is obvious from the above that both sides agreed to enhance the alignment of the development strategies of the two countries, fully tapping the potential of co-operation in various areas with a view to realising sustainable development and common prosperity of the two countries. The two sides expressed satisfaction at the signing of the Framework Agreement for developing co-operation on production capacity between Bangladesh and China and agreed that the Framework Co-operation would be utilised for developing co-operation on capacity building of Bangladeshi companies and financial institutions to improve the level of investment and co-operation between the two countries. Both sides agreed that there are extensive potential for co-operation in maritime affairs between the two countries and agreed to establish a dialogue mechanism for maritime co-operation. The Chinese side took note of the concerns of Bangladesh in combationg the adverse impact of climate change, such as protection from the rising sea level, land reclamation from the sea and rivers and protection of farmland and forests from the intrusion of salinily. China is ready to strengthen co-operation with Bangladesh on climate change and supports Bangladesh's efforts is this regard, the joint declaration observed.
From the above enumeration of the areas overed by the agreements, deals and MoUs it is apparent that the 'strategic partnership' mainly and almost exclusively refer to co-operation for enhanced investment in Bangladesh by China at government and private levels for development of infrastructures including energy generation and upgrading the capasity of Bangladeshi companies and institutions to underpin the overall development of Bangladesh economy. In the process, China expects to benefit from the investments at government-to-government and private levels and realise its ambitious OBOR project connecting China with South Asia, Middle East and Europe. This is the 'major goal' as mentioned in the Oxford dictionary and applicable in the context of the 'strategic partnership' agreed between the two countris. All the agreements, deals and MoUs constitute the plane for comprehensive development of Bangladesh economy and another thrust to the initiative taken by China for its development through international co-operation. Unlike past Chinese assistance through loan and investment, the approach and investments envisaged in the strategic partnership is comprehensive so far as Bangladesh is concarned. As for China, the project to be implemented with Chinese funds and direct participation (DFI) will open up new avenues for investment of its surplus resources. In addition, the MoU related to OBOR will connect the dots in the ambitious inter-continental project undertaken by China, to the advantage and benefit of all countries concerned. In the process, it will also expand Chinese sphere of influence. This is the only 'strategic' aspect in the conventional sense, so far as China is concerned. As long as it is of great conomic importance, Bangladesh can afford not to care too much about this geo-political narrative. Maintaining friendly and co-operative relation with all countries Bangladesh can claim to be neutral in its internation relations.