Misinterpreting Bangladesh foreign policy and the aftermath
While speaking at a virtual meeting with the members of Diplomatic Correspondents Association, Bangladesh (DCAB), the Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh, Li Jiming made a shocking comment that Bangladesh should not join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) initiative. He further claimed that in the case of Bangladesh's joining in the QUAD, Dhaka-Beijing relations would substantially get damaged.' Li says, '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.' This remark from a foreign diplomat at the level of an ambassador is entirely undiplomatic and a blatant attempt of domestic interference.
Besides, the Chinese ambassador also unhelpfully criticised Bangladesh's steps regarding the Covid vaccine as he appeared critical about delay in procuring Chinese vaccine which is absolutely an issue of internal consideration. These remarks are also against the tradition of Chinese conduct of diplomacy as the country generally highlights non-interference in the internal affairs and maintain restraint in public comment. The remark clearly reflects China's growing impatience and diplomatic naivety about regional and global issues that pose challenge to its pursuits of becoming a hegemonic power. More importantly, Chinese ambassador's remark about Bangladesh's relations with QUAD is baseless and concocted.
Reactions from the Government of Bangladesh: The Government of Bangladesh immediately came forward and protested against the remark. Bangladesh did not waste time to inform the truth to the world as the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, A K Abdul Momen asserted, 'We are an independent and sovereign state. We decide our [own] foreign policy.' Bangladesh has understandably rebuffed the Chinese envoy's statement clarifying that Dhaka pursues an independent foreign policy. The minister rightly called the remark 'very regrettable' and 'aggressive.' To Bangladesh, the remark was "very unfortunate" and "presumptuous." Bangladesh also reiterated that two countries are very friendly close neighbours. Bangladesh-China bilateral ties have grown on the basis of the five principles of peaceful coexistence. Ironically, it was not reflected in the remark of the Chinese ambassador.
Protest from civil society: It is not only the government of Bangladesh, but also the entire civil society of Bangladesh expressed their shocks and surprise in such comment from a Chinese ambassador. There has been widespread protest and denunciation of the remark as it hurts people in general.
Violation of diplomatic norms: The remark has specifically violated the diplomatic norms that even China protested in the case of Western powers in Myanmar. The 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and decades-old diplomatic norms never allow a country to dictate host country's choice of foreign policy or strategic decisions. Whatever the case might be, there should be no doubt that any decision in this regard rests squarely on the Bangladesh government. It's frustrating to see that instead of doing so, the ambassador chose to relay his concern on a public platform. Bangladesh has made it evident that while Chinese representatives are, of course, welcome to express their opinion, it shouldn't extend to telling Bangladesh what it can or cannot do as an independent nation. It's undiplomatic, uncalled-for and, therefore, unacceptable.
Why is this remark?
A fundamental question is why has the Chinese ambassador made this undiplomatic and uncalled for remark? Few issues may be highlighted in this connection. Firstly, it is possible that the ambassador made the comment as a preemptive move. Rajiv Bhatia has rightly assessed Chinese intention. He believes that China is just testing the waters. China is well aware of the fact that the Quad countries have clearly stated that there are no plans to expand the membership meaninglessly. Secondly, China has a fear about QUAD. The ambassador made no secret of his government's distrust of the alliance. In China's perspective, QUAD is a military alliance aiming against China's resurgence and its relationship with neighbours.
He termed it as a 'narrow-purposed' geopolitical clique, intent on working against China. Thirdly, the remark is an attempt to assess where Bangladesh stands in India-China relations, knowing well New Delhi's close ties with Dhaka. China has virtually turned up the heat on India's next-door neighbor Bangladesh, indirectly warning it to stay away from QUAD. Finally, China has shown significant level of concerns in recent years about moves by its adversarial powers. Accordingly, China's diplomats have taken up 'aggressive diplomacy' during the rule of Chinese president Xi Jinping. And this was reflected in the Chinese ambassador's remark. In fact, this attitude has been displayed by Chinese ambassadors over the past few years in various countries.
Misconstruing and Misreading Bangladesh foreign policy: Chinese diplomat has revealed a serious misreading of parameters of Bangladesh foreign policy that the country has been pursuing earnestly over the past twelve years. It is a case of major deviation from China's understanding of Bangladesh's international relations. Bangladesh has not shown an iota of change in its foreign policy approach which is based on 'friendship to all and malice toward none.' The Prime Minister of Bangladesh consistently advocates that the country maintains a non-aligned and balanced foreign policy, and will decide what to do based on those principles. That applies to any likely decision on QUAD as well.
It is worth mentioning that while India, Japan, US and Australia consider Dhaka to be a 'key player' in the Indo-Pacific region, they are aware of the fact that the Sheikh Hasina government is 'not open to the idea' of joining the Quad. New Delhi has always been keen to embrace Dhaka under the Indo-Pacific strategic construct, but it has not invited Bangladesh, not even informally, to join the Quad. Bangladesh has made it clear that while it is against joining Quad.
It is widely recognized that Bangladesh strikes a good balance between major powers. It actively cooperates with China on economics. At the same time, Dhaka hopes such cooperation will thus bring more countries to invest in Bangladesh. But it also hopes a competition over it remains at the economic level instead of at the political level. Bangladesh has joined the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) purely on economic considerations. Bangladesh is an advocate of BCIM economic corridor. Bangladesh has engaged China in a number mega projects in the country.
Similarly, Dhaka has engaged India, Japan and US in its connectivity and economic development projects. Likewise, it is keen on being part of the Indo-Pacific construct to strengthen its economy and connectivity. Dhaka views Indo-Pacific purely from an economic perspective and is also contemplating coming out with a strategy for the region.
The aftermath: As the issue of Chinese ambassador's remark raises a basic question of Bangladesh foreign policy, the country has rightly sought an explanation from him who eventually apologized for the matter. During his talks with the Bangladesh Foreign Secretary, Li Jiming explained his remarks and called the issue 'a failing of English language' and 'out of context.' The ambassador argued that he did not 'mean' what he said about the quad 'or did not want to say it that way.'
The matter was also addressed by the Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying. During her daily briefing Hua denied interfering in Bangladesh's foreign policy after Beijing's envoy in Dhaka was rebuked for the remark. She said any comments about the Quad were not interventions but aimed at opposing political cliques. On the question of whether China is aggressively pushing its stand on issues on smaller countries, Hua said Beijing always treats other countries as equals.
The issue has eventually led the US State Department to comment on it. In a media briefing, Ned Price, US State Department Spokesman mentioned that US respect Bangladesh's sovereignty, and Bangladesh's right to make foreign policy decisions. The spokesman also observed that US has an incredibly strong relationship with Bangladesh and both the countries work closely with partners on a range of issues, from economic growth to climate change to humanitarian issues.
Dr Delwar Hossain, Professor, Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka