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Silk Road Headlines_24th May, 2019

Closer BRI Ties Between China and Bangladesh


In late April, it looked like Bangladesh was edging away from China’s BRI, with the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs saying it wouldn’t ask for any more Chinese loans [Bangladesh eyes alternatives to China’s belt and road].


However, it now appears that BRI’s call remains strong in Bangladesh. On May 20, countries founded a new Bangladesh-China Silk Road Forum in Dhaka. The forum is a permanent entity, aimed at cementing “lasting links under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)”.


The founding ceremony of the forum was presided over by Zhang Zuo, China’s ambassador to Bangladesh, and by Gowher Rizvi, foreign affairs adviser of the Prime Minister, indicating strong political support.


China and Bangladesh have a lot going on. China is Bangladesh’s largest trading partner and largest foreign investor. In 2018, China invested $1.03 billion, and investments in the first half of the current fiscal year have already reached $600 million. Most of the money goes to coal-fired power plants, and Chinese companies are also in the race to build Bangladesh’s second nuclear power plant.


Countries have close military relations too. The Bangladesh Armed Forces use Chinese tanks, engineering equipment, trucks, missiles, submarines, and fighter jets. Last month, the Bangladesh navy received the last of four brand new Type 13B corvettes, based on the modern Chinese Type 056-class [Bangladesh Navy receives final two Chinese-made Type C13B corvettes].


More interesting for BRI is the Padma Bridge, a multipurpose road-rail bridge across the Padma River. The 6.150-kilometre-long bridge will connect the south-west of Bangladesh with the north and east. It is the largest infrastructure project ever undertaken in the country.


Main constructor is China’s state-owned China Railway Major Bridge Engineering Company (MBEC), a subsidiary of China Railway Group (CREC). China financed 70% of the $1.55 billion price tag for the construction of the bridge. Work started in 2014 and Chinese state media recently reported that “76%” had been completed [Most work on main structure of Bangladesh's largest bridge project completed].


The bridge was part of a grant BRI scheme called the Bangladesh- China- India- Myanmar (BCIM) Economic corridor, which was to connect China’s Yunnan province with Calcutta in India via Myanmar and Bangladesh. This plan has been shelved, at least for now, because India doesn’t want to be part of it, fearing China may use the new transport links for darker purposes than trade.


Chinese media therefore now say the Padma Bridge is actually part of the Trans-Asian Railway network (TAR), a project initiated by the United Nations, and not directly associated with BRI, although China is strongly backing it. This project focusses on the creation of a railway freight network connecting China’s Pacific ports with Western Europe.


So, no matter under what name, the BRI projects in Bangladesh are set to continue, and China is building much more infrastructure in the country, including bridges and roads. In the end, the Chinese will likely get their BCIM connection anyway. Perhaps not all the way into India, but at least right up to the Indian border.


By Clingendael

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