NEW DELHI: You got to give it to the Chinese—they know how to strike when the iron is hot, especially when the goal is to win friends and influence people. As Bangladesh fights an uphill battle to contain Covid-19 and the consequent economic slowdown, Beijing stepped in granting, tariff-exemption on 97 per cent of the goods it exports.
“The Chinese had been waiting for this opportunity for a very long time. When things are going well between Bangladesh and India, they wait for another day,” former Bangladeshi high commissioner to India Tariq Karim told StratNews Global. In the meantime, China “remained engaged with Bangladesh and made small gains and headway”.
Karim, who was posted in New Delhi for five years, was critical of India’s approach to Bangladesh: “China has played its cards shrewdly while India was too focused on being part of the high table and forgot immediate neighbours. India needs to learn how to earn respect and build trust with them.”
Dr Prabir De, who heads the ASEAN-India Centre at the Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS) says “negotiations to provide duty-free access to more Bangladeshi exports to China had been on for a long time, so there’s nothing unusual”. But he took note of the decision by China “at a time when it is locked in a border dispute with India”.
Dr De said that both China and Bangladesh are already part of the Asia Pacific Trade Agreement (APTA) for preferential trade. The latest concession given to Bangladesh is for 5,161 goods. That’s in addition to the 3,095 Bangladeshi items that already enjoy duty-free access.
Joyeeta Bhattacharjee, who researches on Bangladesh at the Observer Research Foundation, concurred. “The negotiations had been on for some time and the granting of duty-free access is the outcome of a long-drawn process. However, to take such a decision during the pandemic is being seen as a step to woo Bangladesh.”
Chinese efforts at making inroads into Bangladesh continue in other ways as well. Last month in a meeting with Awami League, Bangladesh’s ruling party, the Communist Party of China suggested that the two countries ink sister-cities pacts and China in turn will help Bangladesh tackle Covid-19.
The proposal raised eyebrows in strategic community circles as the sister-cities initiative is increasingly seen as a pact that goes beyond the mere people-to-people and cultural connect. Rather, it’s being seen as part of Beijing’s geostrategic moves to promote the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative).
Would it involve Chinese medical teams in Bangladesh, how many, in which cities and could these include PLA medical personnel? We should know soon.