The debate over risks and opportunities
The growing BRI links between China and Bangladesh has attracted criticism, particularly in the context of the debate over whether China engages in “debt trap diplomacy”. Many experts argue that BRI projects and related aid are a form of economic colonialism. In 2018, then-prime minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, cancelled several China-funded projects because of the cost. The Washington-based Center for Global Development identified six Asian countries (Pakistan, Tajikistan, the Maldives, Laos, Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan) as BRI partners with at least some risk of debt distress.
The example most often cited by critics of the BRI is the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka, which was built with a Chinese loan that Colombo is reported to have failed to repay on time, leading to China taking a 99-year lease on the facility. Gwadar port in Pakistan is said to be a similar case. But researchers such as Deborah Bräutigam of Johns Hopkins University and Meg Rithmire of Harvard Business School have debunked the “debt trap” claims, arguing that there is a measure of transparency in Chinese financing deals and that the Chinese companies have been willing to restructure loans.
With huge infrastructure development plans in prospect, corruption could also become a serious problem as it has with BRI projects in other Asian countries such as Malaysia and Kyrgyzstan. Beijing has acknowledged the problem: According to the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) of China, corruption occurs in the processes of decision making, examination and approval, land acquisition, and material procurement. With its lack of transparency (ranked 146 out of 180 in Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perception Index), Bangladesh could well see graft worsen with the rolling out of BRI projects.
As Bangladesh proceeds down the BRI path, the challenges are likely to come from regional and global geopolitics as China’s tensions with both the United States and India. Bangladesh has a close relationship with the US and is geographically sandwiched between India and China. In 2020, border tension in India’s Ladakh region resulted in the deaths of both Chinese and Indian soldiers, while in 2016 another skirmish took place on the India-China-Bhutan frontiers at Doklam. China had hoped Bangladesh would serve as a bridge for its proposed Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridor, which faltered after New Delhi pulled out.
China has also antagonized India with its “string of pearls” strategy of coastal naval installations that could encircle the South Asian country and cover the Indian Ocean. In this respect, the rivalry between Beijing and Washington has become a concern. The US has moved to revive the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, that brings India, Australia, Japan and the US together, with plans to counter the growing influence of China in the Indo-Pacific region in areas such as infrastructure development, supply chains, and Covid-19 vaccine supply.