Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told lawmakers Wednesday that China could use Bangladesh’s two largest seaports, in a move praised by analysts, weeks after Dhaka signed an agreement with Beijing’s regional rival, India, for access to the same ports.
Hasina issued the statement while announcing that her government had signed a deal with New Delhi known as the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), which would provide ease the flow of cargo destined to northeastern Indian states.
“We will welcome it if the southwestern states of China show interest in using the two ports,” Hasina replied when a legislator asked if Beijing would also be given access to the ports.
India’s seven northeastern states, encircled by five countries, are connected by a sliver of land that arches over Bangladesh. By providing access to the two ports, Bangladesh would be transformed into “a hub of regional trade and connectivity,” Hasina said.
“To achieve these goals, an SOP has been signed with India. So, India can use the two ports [Chittagong and Mongla] for its export-import trade,” Hasina said. “I hope, the northeastern states of India would exploit the opportunity.”
She said landlocked Bhutan and Nepal might also be given access to the ports in the “near future.”
‘A win-win for all’
China began taking steps in recent years to expand its footprint in Bangladesh’s economy and energy sectors. Beijing outpaced the United States as Bangladesh’s top investor in 2018, during which Dhaka recorded U.S. $3.6 billion in foreign direct investments, according to official figures.
“I think, the prime minister’s declaration of welcoming China for port use is a timely decision,” Ambassador Humayun Kabir, the acting president of the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, a local think-tank, told. “The announcement reflects the people’s desire.”
Bangladesh and India signed a memorandum of agreement on the use of Chittagong and Mongla ports in June 2015, but the two countries signed the SOP last month.
Kabir said this marked the first time that Bangladesh had expressed interest in allowing China to use its ports.
“By offering China to use Chittagong and Mongla ports, the prime minister has passed on a message that we are not connected with only one country, India,” he said. “We want to be connected with China and other countries, too.”
Opening up the ports would not only benefit Bangladesh but also India, China, Bhutan and Nepal, the diplomat said.
“This is a win-win for all,” he said.
Since Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan in 1971, India had been seeking access to its seven landlocked states via Bangladesh.
In 2011, Hasina and her then-Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, announced in a joint statement that New Delhi would use Bangladesh ports to transport goods to India’s northeastern states, but a final agreement had not been signed.
Delwar Hossain, a Dhaka University professor, said Bangladesh’s move would help the nation maintain a balance in its relations with India and China.
“Bangladesh does not want to make the port for use by any specific country. The facility is open to all interested countries,” he said.
China is one of Bangladesh’s largest trading partners, with bilateral trade reaching about U.S. $12 billion annually, with the imbalance tilted heavily in Beijing’s favor. The Bangladeshi Army has been equipped with Chinese tanks, its navy uses Chinese frigates and its air force flies Chinese fighter jets.
A Chinese-built solar power plant recently started supplying electricity to Bangladesh’s national grid, and Beijing-based China National Machinery Import and Export Corporation (CMC) also began producing 500 megawatts of electricity across the nation.
Beijing will also help Bangladesh construct its first submarine base, but Chinese subs will not use the facility, a leading member of parliamentary committees on foreign policy and defense told in September.
The future base, which will be built in a southeastern district on the Bay of Bengal and financed by Bangladesh, will house two Chinese-made submarines purchased by Dhaka from Beijing in 2016, retired Col. Faruk Khan said, adding that Bangladesh was not taking sides in a regional rivalry between India and China.
During Hasina’s visit to Beijing in July, Bangladesh and China inked several agreements including one that relates to China’s extension of loans worth U.S. $1.7 billion for Bangladesh’s power sector, local reports said.