Chinese vessels, believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel, are seen at Whitsun Reef, South China Sea on March 27, 2021. Philippine Coast Guard/National Task Force-West Philippine Sea/Handout via REUTERS

China’s threat to Bangladesh that it would do substantial damage to bilateral relations between the two countries if Bangladesh joined the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as Quad, has been rebuffed by Dhaka.

“We are an independent and sovereign state. We decide our foreign policy,” is how Foreign Minister of Bangladesh AK Abdul Momen has reacted to the remark of the Chinese ambassador in Dhaka, describing the comments of the Chinese envoy as “very unfortunate” and “aggressive.” He has also indicated that the comments of the top Chinese diplomat in Dhaka have been premature as no one has approached Bangladesh to join Quad.

China seems to be smelling a rat, however, and does not appear convinced by the statement of the Bangladesh foreign minister that no move is afoot for Dhaka to join Quad. The Global Times that reflects the official position of the Communist Party of China has commented: “Member countries of Quad are now seeking to seduce Bangladesh to be part of their Indo-Pacific efforts. The news that Bangladesh had been invited to join the Quad was not possibly groundless. Bangladesh either had talked with Quad members over the issue, or aim to launch a trial balloon to see China’s reaction.”

China’s ire at reports of Bangladesh being approached by Quad is understandable. About two weeks before the Chinese ambassador in Dhaka Li Jiming issued the warning in May 2021, the Chinese Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe during a visit to Bangladesh had said that China and Bangladesh should make joint efforts against powers from outside the region establishing a military alliance in South Asia. The comments of the Chinese defence minister were obviously directed at Quad, an alliance between Japan, Australia, India and the US, for they came in the wake of Quad agreeing to enhance cooperation among the member states in the strategic Indo-Pacific amid growing Chinese assertiveness in the region.

The reported Quad move must have set the alarm bells ringing in Beijing as China is the only country with which Bangladesh has a defence co-operation agreement. China is the largest supplier of arms to the Bangladeshi military. Lately, Bangladesh has purchased its first submarine from China while the Asian superpower is neck-deep in a host of other projects in Bangladesh and at this stage, worsening of relations with the country would jeopardise Beijing’s long-term interests.

Among the ongoing projects are Padma multipurpose bridge, Karnafuli tunnel, upgrading of Dhaka-Chattogram Highway into four lanes, Payra Port development, Chattogram-Cox’s Bazar railway project, strengthening of Power Grid network, Dhaka-Ashulia elevated expressway and Dhaka-Sylhet four-lane highway. Some of these projects are part of China’s controversial Belt and Road Initiative. In fact, China wants Bangladesh to emerge as an important outpost of BRI.

Quad is an alliance formed primarily to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific. High-handed activities by China in the South China Sea have already brought it into conflict with some of the small countries located in the region. The Philippines is the latest example. Things came to such a pass in May 2021 that the Philippines foreign secretary mouthed profanities against China, though he subsequently apologised for that.

China’s tiff with the Philippines started in March when a Chinese flotilla swarmed around a disputed reef in the South China Sea and ignored Manila’s demand to leave the area. As around 200 Chinese militia boats thronged the Whitsurf Reef, Manila deployed more navy ships to stage sovereignty patrols in the South China Sea. The Philippines says the reef is within an internationally recognised offshore zone where it has exclusive rights to exploit fisheries, oil, gas and other resources.

Early in May, the Philippines government protested against the Chinese coastguards harassing Philippine coastguard ships patrolling the disputed Scarborough Shoal. The Department of Foreign Affairs of the Philippines protested against the Chinese coastguards “shadowing, blocking, radio challenging” and resorting to dangerous manoeuvres against the coastguard ships of the Philippines carrying out an exercise.  According to an AP report, Filipino Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr compared China with “an ugly oaf which was forcing attention on a handsome guy who wants to be a friend.” Its Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana rejected China’s demand that the Philippines end its patrols in the disputed region and warned that China’s military capability would not prevent his country from defending its national interests and its dignity as a people.

China loves to bully weaker nations but is more respectful of the stronger states. Late in May an American naval ship, part of the US Seventh Fleet, sailed through the Taiwan Strait that separates the island of Taiwan from the Asian mainland, a part of South China Sea, to demonstrate Washington’s commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific”. The Seventh Fleet said in a statement that the guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur had conducted a “routine Taiwan Strait transit” in accordance with international law. “The ship’s transit through Taiwan Strait demonstrates the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” added the statement.

The immediate Chinese reaction was to rush some naval ships to follow the American vessel. A second protest by China the next day drew an unusually sharp response from the US Navy’s largest deployed fleet. The Southern Theatre Command of the Peoples Liberation Army of China said the US ship had illegally entered into its territorial waters surrounding the Paracel group of islands in the South China Sea and that Chinese forces had warned and expelled it.

In a surprisingly harsh riposte, the Seventh Fleet called the statement of the PLA false. “USS Curtis Wilbur was not expelled from any nation’s territory. It conducted the freedom of navigation operation in accordance with international law and then continued on to conduct normal operations in international waters,” it said.

The US Navy also accused Beijing of attempting to assert illegitimate maritime rights at the expense of its neighbours. Paracels are also claimed by Vietnam. US warplanes and warships periodically fly and sail through the disputed South China Sea to assert freedom of navigation in areas claimed by China. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan have counter-claims over the South China Sea.

Md Hussainis an alumnus of JNU, New Delhi.

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