China’s support for Hasina Wajed may have a message for India
When Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s Awami League won a landslide in the January 5 polls, most were asking how long the government would last. It was not an unfair question, considering that a similar election in early 1996, held with Khaleda Zia in power, had led to huge protests that forced the Bangladesh Nationalist Party leader to accept a caretaker dispensation and hold fresh elections within a few months. That election led to an Awami League victory and a change of guard. After the January 5 polls, most were busy looking for parallels. The 1996 polls led to a 7 per cent turnout and was boycotted by the Awami League-led opposition. The January 5 polls had a much better turnout, but that was nowhere near the 80 per cent registered in the December 2008 polls. It was boycotted by the BNP-led opposition and marred by intense violence. Wajed was aware of the limitation in which she was taking over as prime minister for a third time as she promised a dialogue with the opposition and fresh polls as soon as a consensus was reached. The United States of America rubbished the elections as “less than credible” and its envoy in Dhaka, Dan Mozena, called for fresh dialogue and mid-term polls to “let the Bangladesh people express their will freely”. The European Union and the Commonwealth also dubbed the polls one-sided and called for fresh elections. Only India expectedly backed Wajed, saying that the polls were a “constitutional necessity”.
But within a week, the situation has changed for her. Russia has come out in support of Wajed’s government, saying it looked forward to a “constructive partnership and cooperation” with the new government. More interestingly, the Russian statement blamed the opposition for the violence and the boycott while it explained the one-sided nature of the elections. This brought back memories of the 1971 liberation war for many Awami League veterans, of the troubled months when India and the erstwhile Soviet Union firmly upheld the cause of Bangladesh’s independence against a brutal Pakistani military regime backed by the US and China. After Vladimir Putin’s firm intervention in Syria, this move by Russia to back Wajed was also seen as yet another Kremlin assertion in a major Asian issue. But what came after that was all the more surprising.
China, which backed Pakistan in 1971 but soon established good relations with Bangladesh, has maintained equidistance when it comes to the two rival, battling coalitions which have run the country since it returned to democracy from military rule in the early 1990s. Before the January 5 polls, the usually quiet Chinese envoy in Dhaka, Li Jun, had called for a dialogue between the Awami League and the BNP, so that “wisdom prevailed over violence”. But as Wajed assumed office and formed her cabinet, she received a message from the Chinese prime minister, Li Keqiang, saying that China was keen to “join hands” with her government to “advance the Sino-Bangla comprehensive and cooperative partnership to a new height”. Li Jun handed over the letter to the Bangladesh foreign secretary, Shahidul Haque, to deliver the message even more clearly that Beijing meant business when it came out in support. Li’s letter had no mention of the elections, let alone referring to its credibility or one-sided nature. The Chinese premier was clearly sending a message to the West, specially the US, that the business of democracy and governance be better left to the government in Dhaka. In December, the Chinese had told Indian and Bangladesh officials at a BCIM meeting in Kunming that Beijing was keen to work with both Delhi and Dhaka to develop an economic corridor connecting Calcutta and Kunming that would “open a new chapter in our relationship and economic development”. Now by breaking away from its strict equidistance policy and supporting the Hasina Wajed government, China is seeking to warm up to India as well and drive home the message that it would be only too happy to work with India in the region. That this comes at a time when India-US relations are at a low following l’affaire Devyani is significant. Chinese officials have previously dropped broad hints to Indian diplomats that the deep sea port they plan to build at Sonadia off the Cox’s Bazar coast would be useful to India in accessing its Northeast. Beijing is keen to draw India out of the US ambit and what better time than now? The expression of support for Wajed, who is seen as close to India is, for China, like killing two birds with an arrow.