Welcome to the newsletter of Diplomat Risk Intelligence, the research and consulting division of The Diplomat, your go-to outlet for definitive analyses from and about the Asia-Pacific.
This week’s DRI Asia Review looks at the health of the Bangladesh-China relationship which has considerably deepened in the recent years across a wide spectrum of issues ranging from infrastructure, trade, and investment to defense cooperation and vaccine diplomacy. We also delve into how Bangladeshi voices view the challenges in the relationship and present a short summary of how both Bangladesh and China are affected by climate change-induced stress, drawing from a new DRI report. Finally, in honor of this week’s physics Nobel Prize announcement, we offer you a short account of how complexity science has informed security studies.
Bangladesh and China Keep It Real and Bilateral
|Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, speaks during a meeting with Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, Friday, July 5, 2019|
|— AP Photo, Mark Schiefelbein, Pool|
October 4 marked 46 years of China-Bangladesh bilateral relations, spanning an era of lukewarm ties during the Cold War, renewed engagement in the post-Soviet era, and now a “strategic partnership of cooperation.” The increased momentum in ties is likely a byproduct of changed regional and global power dynamics, particularly heightened strategic rivalry between Washington and Beijing, and intensified competition with India at the regional level. With the increasing importance of Bay of Bengal region in Beijing’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Bangladesh’s geographic position accords it greater importance in China’s foreign policy outreach. Since Bangladesh joined BRI in 2016, Beijing has provided large amounts of funding for key infrastructure projects and over time has gained the reputation of being a “neutral, if not benign force.” Following a prolonged hiatus in the country’s China-funded infrastructure projects due to the coronavirus pandemic, the projects are reportedly "back on track."
Infrastructure and Connectivity
Although international voices have raised concern about Bangladesh falling into a possible Chinese “debt trap,” public sentiment within Bangladesh and from official government quarters remain unfazed. Over the past year, Chinese state-backed companies outbid Indian companies to secure several infrastructure contracts in Bangladesh—most recently, with Beijing Urban Construction Group Limited winning the contract to construct a new terminal at the Sylhet airport. Last year, the Bangladesh government reached out to China to fund nine new infrastructure projects worth $6.4 billion. This request comes after China has already committed $10 billion in the country towards a spate of power and infrastructure projects under the BRI umbrella. Bangladesh is all set to receive a $1 billion loan from China to implement the Teesta River Comprehension Management and Restoration project, marking Beijing’s involvement in a river management project in Bangladesh for the first time, even as the Teesta river remains a subject of contestation between Dhaka and New Delhi.
Trade and Investment
As it stands, the current bilateral trade relations between China and Bangladesh, heavily favors the former. In 2020, of the $12.09 billion in bilateral trade, export to China from Bangladesh accounted for only $600 million, while imports from China stood at a whopping $11.49 billion. In August 2020 Beijing announced that it had increased the number of Bangladeshi imported products which will enjoy duty free access to the Chinese market, taking the total number of products to 8,256 and accounting for 97 percent of tariff products of Bangladesh.
|Total trade between Bangladesh and China (in billion $)|
|— Data: UN Comtrade Database. Graphics: DRI|
Notwithstanding this trade deficit, Dhaka views Beijing as a reliable trade and development partner, with Bangladesh’s commerce minister estimating Chinese investments in the country to cross $50 billion in the next 10 to 15 years. However, some analysts have raised apprehensions over these projections in view of Beijing’s current track record, having disbursed only five percent (until December 2019) of the $20 billion loan package agreed upon in 2016, with 2020 being the agreed deadline for Dhaka to receive the money. Meanwhile, Chinese foreign direct investments in Bangladesh dipped significantly in 2020—amounting to only $91.34 million in 2020—compared to its record high $1.6 billion investment in FY 2018-2019. However, it jumped by about 200 percent on a year on year basis to $418 million in the first seven months of this year.
|— Data: Statistics Department, Bangladesh Bank. Graphics: DRI|
Defense cooperation forms a core pillar of China-Bangladesh relations, and has only deepened since the two countries signed a Defense Cooperation Agreement in 2002. China has provided Bangladesh with tanks, fighter jets, frigates, submarines, anti-ship missiles, small arms and even military training, consistently maintaining its position as the largest supplier of arms to the country. News reports from 2019, citing anonymous Bangladeshi officials, suggest that Beijing is helping Bangladesh construct its first submarine base, without any official agreement in place. Currently the Bangladesh Navy has only two Ming-class submarines, ordered from China in 2013 and commissioned in 2017. Earlier this year, Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh Li Jiming’s remarks warning Dhaka of “substantial damage” to bilateral ties if it joined the Quad, not only invited a sharp response from the foreign ministry, but also cast aspersions over Beijing’s public perceptions in Dhaka. However, the issue seemed to have resolved quickly, without causing any dent in military relations or otherwise, after the Chinese ambassador clarified his remarks in a meeting with Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen.
Soft power is essential to enhance mutual cooperation, and with vaccine diplomacy emerging as the latest avatar of this form of diplomacy, China has been at the forefront of providing much-needed pandemic assistance to South Asian countries. In February 2020, when Beijing was struggling with the COVID-19 virus at home– and before the disease caused by the novel coronavirus was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization in April–China sent a first batch of 500 rapid kits and emergency anti-epidemic medical supplies to Bangladesh. Following India’s abrupt halt of committed vaccines to Bangladesh owing to domestic distress brought on by a deadly second wave, China gifted Bangladesh 500,000 doses of Sinopharm vaccine. Just nine days after this announcement, China gifted an additional 600,000 doses. Since March 2021, Bangladesh has received 25 million Sinopharm doses from China, and earlier in August it signed an agreement with China on co-production of Chinese COVID-19 vaccines locally.
Bangladeshi Voices Contemplate Implications of China’s Power Crisis
|— Flickr, ILO Asia-Pacific|
Of course, all this is not to say that Bangladeshi public opinion about China is unalloyedly positive. As the global implications of China’s severe power shortages reveal themselves, Bangladesh’s garment industry, which is heavily reliant on Chinese raw material supply, is at risk. On October 4, Prothom Alo—a leading Bengali daily newspaper in Bangladesh— published an article highlighting the woes of Bangladeshi traders who are worried about raw material shipments from Beijing arriving on time. According to the news report, although some export-oriented garment industry owners see the crisis as an opportunity to increase sales in the ready-made garment sector, most are apprehensive and fear complications with future orders, if the crisis persists.
Earlier on August 11, the newspaper published an opinion piece highlighting the country’s urgent need to re-evaluate its overdependence on cotton due to the rising global cotton prices, one of the reasons which the author attributes to clothing brands’ reluctance to buy garments made using cotton produced in Xinjiang. On July 3, 2021 Prothom Alo published an opinion piece which harshly denounced Chinese policies in Xinjiang and unjust discriminatory treatment towards Uighur Muslims, describing the “Sino-Pak alliance” as yet another hurdle in front of the ethnic minority’s right to lead a dignified life.
|Bad Debt: Evergrande and China|
Nathan Handwerker, co-founder of The China Guys, talks to DRI's Director of Research Abhijnan Rej about the Evergrande crisis, China's real estate and banking sectors, and the future trajectory of the Chinese economy in the latest episode of the DRI podcast.
Listen to the podcast
Bangladesh, China, and Climate Security
|— Flickr, Development Planning Unit University College London|
The latest Diplomat Risk Intelligence Trendlines “Soundless Wailing: Water, Climate Change, and Security Risks in the Asia-Pacific,” examines the effect of climate change in key Asia-Pacific countries through the lens of its impact on water resources. It highlights the impending security risks posed by water conflicts between states - water conflicts that arise because of the disruption of the continued availability and dependability of water resources due to climate change. And in these upcoming “water wars,” transboundary rivers are all set to take center stage. China, being an upper riparian nation, is at a more advantaged position over the Brahmaputra river vis-a-vis its South Asian neighbors, including Bangladesh, which has been a source of tension between them. Additionally, after being snubbed by India over water sharing treaties, Bangladesh has turned to China for support for infrastructure projects on Teesta river, a move that will solidify Chinese influence in the country, including in areas India considers strategically sensitive.
|— Data: FAOSTAT. Graphics: DRI|
By inspecting the past and future trajectory of water resources, the latest Trendlines report examines several key threats that climate change will exacerbate. The report also gives an assessment of the current urban-rural divide in Asia-Pacific and the subsequent rural push factors that contribute to rapid urbanization. It examines several urban vulnerabilities in front of the Asia-Pacific region: insufficient infrastructure, high-density low elevation areas, including major urban coastal hubs that are most vulnerable to the effects of rising sea levels. It gives a visual representation of the various “symptoms” of increased frequency of sudden adverse weather events brought on by climate change: displacement of people, increasing flooding and salinization of arable land.
|Number of people displaced annually from weather-related disasters|
|— Data: Global Internal Displacement Database. Graphics: DRI|
Access the report
|Afghanistan and Taliban 2.0 Political Drivers, Taliban Strategies, and Domestic Implications|
Based on exhaustive in-house research and interviews with 10 leading experts, the report looks at the domestic and international drivers behind the collapse of the Afghan government on August 15 and the return of the Taliban to power two decades after they were ousted. The report also probes Taliban 2.0, the group’s possible economic strategies, as well as the social implications of their return to Kabul.
Complexity Science and Security
|— Flickr, brewbooks|
This week saw the Nobel Prize for physics being awarded to three scientists whose work has proved crucial in understanding how complex systems—including the earth’s climate—can be understood through rigorous models and penetrating mathematics. The official statement from Stockholm announced that Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann will be awarded one-half of the prize "for the physical modelling of Earth's climate, quantifying variability and reliably predicting global warming," while Gorgio Parisi will receive the other half "for the discovery of the interplay of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems from atomic to planetary scales."
While the work of Manabe and Hasselmann on one hand and Parisi’s on the other may look disconnected, there are deep conceptual links between the two. According to science journal Nature, soon after the prize was announced, Parisi explained: “We’re [Manabe and Hasselmann and him] recognizing that emerging phenomena sometimes require you to look at all the individual complicated physical mechanisms and knit them together to make a prediction.”
It is important to keep in mind that this is far from the first time that the Nobel committee has awarded physics prizes for work that have proved to be crucial for the understanding of complex systems. In 1982, the physics Nobel went to Kenneth Wilson for his pathbreaking work on renormalization, phase transitions and critical phenomena. Another physics Nobel awardee, Philip Anderson, provided much intellectual ballast to the study of complex systems, beginning with a highly influential 1972 Science article “More is Different.”
As regular readers of the DRI Asia Review will discern, Diplomat Risk Intelligence remains bullish on insights complexity science could provide for security and futures studies. And in this DRI is far from being alone. The influential political scientist Robert Jervis’ 1997 book “Systems Effects: Complexity in Political and Social Life” made a strong case for, inter alia, viewing international politics through the complex systems lens, inspiring an entire generation of security studies scholars.
Even before Jervis’ work, the study of war from an evolutionary perspective formed one of the essays, written by Richard Wrangham, in the proceedings of founding workshops of the Santa Fe Institute. Wrangham wrote: “The establishment of analytical principles will open the way for a synthesis of biological and social sciences if they succeed in showing the logic behind the evolution of aggressive behavior.” And then of course, much more recently we have a push towards the study of complex-systems inspired “big history,” spearheaded by the work of Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis, among others.
But it is not just qualitative observations that have shaped how complexity science has permeated security studies: the paradigm has been profitably and extensively used to study terrorism, insurgencies and ethnic conflicts, not to mention understanding how small and big conflicts are related through “scale-free behavior.” At the same time, a networks perspective has proved to be extremely useful in counterterrorism efforts. That said, it is fair to also observe that the true cutting edge of complexity science still remains quite distant from core security studies concerns.
DRI’s Director of Research Abhijnan Rej, DRI Research Analysts Malvika Rajeev and Rushali Saha contributed to this edition of DRI Asia Review. Translation of Bengali media articles were provided by an in-house linguist.
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