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Importance of Bangladesh for India amidst 'growing might' of China in South Asia

By Samara Ashrat* 
The basic key factor behind the geopolitical importance of Bangladesh is its geographical location. The country shares land borders with Myanmar and India. Due to its geographical position, Bangladesh is a natural link between South Asia and Southeast Asia. 
The country is also a vital geopolitical ally to India, in that it has the potential to facilitate greater integration between Northeast India and Mainland India. Not only that, due to its open access to the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh has become significant to both China and the US.
Previously Bangladesh’s importance in South Asian geopolitics was largely defined by Sino-Indian rivalry and the Indo-Pak conflict, as India, Pakistan and China all are in the close proximity of Bangladesh. But in the post-cold war era, China’s growing ambition in the South Asian region and the Bay of Bengal has changed the equation of geopolitics for Bangladesh.
China followed the combined theories of geopolitics for its expansion. The "Sea Power" theory raised by Alfred Thayer Mahan from the USA believed those who controlled the sea would control the world; the "Heartland" theory raised by Halford John Mackinder from Britain believed those who controlled Eurasia would control the world; while the "Rim Land" theory raised by Nicholas John Spykman from the US believed those who controlled the rim land would control the world.
To control the Eurasia, Rimland and heartland, China needed to expand its connectivity with the outer world. But due to the rivalry with India, the opportunity of connectivity narrowed down and there came the geopolitical importance of Bangladesh.

Geo-Strategic importance for India

Bangladesh is very important to India militarily. Because China can easily close the Siliguri Corridor in Sino-Indian military conflict. Through which India maintains communication with its eastern states. In this situation, India's only option will be to use the territory of Bangladesh to protect its relations with the eastern states.
That is why it is very important for India to have friendly relations with Bangladesh, which is necessary for its security. India is now proposing connectivity of its northeastern part to China via the Chittagong port of Bangladesh, which will also boost further regional integration by complementing the BCIM and the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) corridors.
India now aims to allow “limited Chinese investment” for boosting connectivity and trade in the northeast by using the BBIN sub-regional hub. This paradigm shift in Indian policies toward the BRI is being considered as the potential for a fresh beginning of India-China regional cooperation centering on Bangladesh, where a critical Bangladeshi port will work as the connecting hub.
Connecting India’s Northeastern States with mainland
Chicken’s Neck or Siliguri Corridor created the importance of Bangladesh for India. This corridor is one of the most geographical compulsions for India. This narrow corridor separated the whole North Eastern region from the Indian Mainland. Bangladesh creates a broader nexus between the Indian mainland and the North Eastern region.
Because Agartala is 1,650km from Kolkata and 2,637km from New Delhi through Shillong and Guwahati, the journey between Agartala and Kolkata via Bangladesh, on the other hand, is only about 550km. Furthermore, the average distance between Bangladesh's major cities and northeast India is 20km to 300km.
As a result, Bangladesh is always considered crucial for the North-Eastern region's connectivity with mainland India by rail, road, and river routes. Bangladesh played a major role and has immense potential for the development of Indian northeastern states. And among those states, Tripura and Assam are the prominent ones.
Not only that, The northeast region of India is one of the most vulnerable areas in terms of security. The northeastern states are almost detached from the Indian mainland. The terrorists and separatists take the advantage of the "Chicken's Neck" and carried out their insurgent movements in these states. Bangladesh, in turn, has been always by India's side in combating the situation.

China and US fight over Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean is a key trading route for China’s energy supplies and routes, making it also the theatre of vulnerabilities. Out of the 10, the route to nine of its suppliers is through the Indian Ocean region. Securing these critical Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs) is a key priority for China. And to contain Chinese ascension thhe USA has the similar amount of interst in the India Ocean region. Bay of Bengal is one of the most important areas of the Indian Ocean Region.
Due to its open access to the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh have become significant to both China and the USA. Towards the sea, Bangladesh maintains three—Chattogram, Mongla and Payra—out of the 12 ports in the Bay of Bengal.
Bangladesh is a prime candidate to partner with China in the hypothesised "String of Pearls" strategy and the formation of the "Maritime Silk Road." The land dimensions of the BRI consist of several interconnected corridors spanning the entire Eurasian continent. Bangladesh is centrally situated along the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor.
Bangladesh also occupies a strategic position along the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road with its bustling port of Chittagong as a major maritime hub through the Indian Ocean. Since the inception of the BRI, China with its vast financial clout has launched special initiatives to boost its ties with Bangladesh by pouring billions of dollars into infrastructure projects.
China considers Bangladesh one of the gateways for the Maritime Silk Road (one of the segments of the BRI) that allows China access to the Indian Ocean and beyond. Therefore, China showed a keen interest in building a deep-sea port at Sonadia in Bangladesh.
Diverse interests and the nature of South Asian politics are making the scenario more challenging for Bangladesh
China's western rivals, along with India, are quite aware of this possibility, and have already initiated steps towards building greater ties with Bangladesh. It is also this possibility that has changed Bangladesh's status from decades of geopolitical irrelevance to a key player in shaping the future of Asia.
Moreover, as the Indo-Pacific trade route is one of the major concerns, the Western powers and their Pacific allies also became worried. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its rapid spread worldwide have also increased China’s presence both in this region and beyond. As a result, the geopolitical attention of almost all major powers quickly shifted to the Indo-Pacific region.
The US and its European allies started to increase their engagement in this region, and its Indo-Pacific allies such as India, Japan and Australia also started to join in this engagement. Quickly, they inked agreements and pacts to contain China. The revival of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) between the USA, India, Japan and Australia, the AUKUS pact between the USA, the UK and Australia, and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) are the major agreements inked by the west and its Indo-Pacific allies to contain Chinese presence in this region.
Apart from these initiatives, the European Union and other major powers also clarified their stance on the issues. The USA also increased its presence in the region after Biden’s ascension to the presidency, centring its policy on democracy and human rights.
Such diverse interests and the nature of South Asian politics are making the scenario more challenging for Bangladesh. While many consider the balancing between QUAD and China, it has to balance between three great powers, India, China and the USA. Since the Ukraine crisis, Russia is also emerging as a power to consider in this region as it is ‘energy giant’ and also has a keen interest in this region. Gradually, Russia’s stake in these geopolitics is also increasing.
Overall, Bangladesh's location, population, economic potential and regional stability make it a significant player in South Asia and a potential hub for regional connectivity and trade. The country's geo-political importance is likely to continue to grow in the coming years, as it continues to develop its economy and promote regional integration and stability.
---
*PhD fellow, International Relations, University of Bucharest

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