The Rohingya refugee crisis is a result of state atrocities and institutional injustice towards a stateless minority by Myanmar in 2017. On humanitarian grounds, Bangladesh allowed the Rohingyas into the country to take immediate temporary shelter. Different nations, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), donor agencies and NGOs have been assisting Dhaka in accommodating over a million people in camps near the border. The Covid-19 pandemic, however, could hamper that international support. The public-health crisis and its severe impact on the economy of the host country could worsen the situation for the refugees. Their prompt repatriation with the help of international community is the only option, but this is unlikely due to the economic and strategic interest of major powers in the region.
Balancing the major powers
Bangladesh’s foreign policy is largely determined by geography. Being next door to major powers, India and China, requires cautious balancing. The two countries naturally have strategic interests in the region – and relations with Myanmar are part of Delhi and Beijing’s calculations.
Under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China planned to invest US$7.3 billion to develop the Kyauk Phyu Special Economic Zone and construct a deep-water seaport in the Bay of Bengal, improving connections to Yunnan, its most southwesterly province. Historically, Beijing has proven to be a steadfast ally to Myanmar, remaining on its side even when its military regime was an international pariah.
For its part, India has long had warm ties with its neighbor. Delhi’s “Act East” policy (launched in 2014 as an expansion of the “Look East” initiative) included efforts to ensure stability and security in India’s northeast regions, where it shares a 1,643-km border with Myanmar. To counter Chinese influence, India has made vast investments in infrastructure development in Myanmar including power and energy projects and the construction of a seaport.
Undeniably, India and China are both closely engaged economically with its neighbors, with investment the main way for them to assert their respective strategic interests. For Bangladesh, the two powers, which are its biggest trading partners, are key to its development aspirations, especially as it aims to consolidate gains and keep up the momentum of recent years with the country graduating from developing economy to lower middle-income status.
Both India and China have extended credit to Bangladesh to fund development projects. During a 2016 visit, his first to the country, Chinese leader Xi Jinping signed agreements for $24 billion in loans for the construction of power plants, a seaport and railways, with many of these project now ongoing.