CHITTAGONG – In the port of Chittagong, containers pile up like colorful cubes of sugar. Dozens of ships scurry down the estuary of the Karnaphuli, the river that winds around the economic capital of Bangladesh to finally stream down into the Bay of Bengal.
The port is bustling. The newly built mooring container terminal (NCT) is beautiful, with an extension of five berths. The company was built by the China Harbour company – a symbol of China’s multiplying contributions to the development of Bangladesh. A little further upstream, a 950 meter-long four-way bridge was built by the China Major company. Towering over shantytowns and wooden fishing boats, the majestic structure is Chittagong’s symbol of modernity.
Nowadays in Bangladesh, it’s hard to miss all the Chinese constructions. In October, there was yet another Chinese delegation signing deals and offering subsidized loans for a water treatment facility, a private power plant and an international airport in the fishing port of Cox’s Bazar.
But mostly, China is building a spectacular deep-sea harbor in the island of Sonadia for an estimated cost of $5 billion. There is also a tunnel under the Chittagong River, a China-Bangladesh highway via Burma (Myanmar), and the project of a new industrial park.
“China is supporting us through their big projects,” says Raisul Haq Bahar, the Chittagong Daily Star’s editor-in-chief. “They have the know-how, the people, the money and the technological investments.” Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury, the former minister of commerce and regional head of the BNP (Bangladesh National Party) believes that “the Chinese are developing a real strategy, anticipating on the next 30 years. They are selling their country, their products and services. While the westerners are busy attending fancy diner parties in Dacca, the Chinese are working. They will soon be the world’s first economy and a country like Bangladesh cannot ignore that.”
Fighting for regional domination
Today, the Chinese focus on the strategic sector of transportation can be seen in Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Burma, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. All of these countries surround… India. In a region where it has always been very influential, the Indian government was quick to suspect the Chinese expansion of hiding an “encirclement” strategy. The two Asian giants are locked in a struggle for regional domination. “In the way it deals with China, India has aligned itself with the U.S.,” says Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury.
The “small” nations of the Indian subcontinent have always been wary of their Indian big brother, whose domination they resent. “Indians don’t bring us any interesting deals,” says this former member of the Bangladeshi government. The Chinese alternative seems more appealing. So much so that India is thinking about changing its strategy to become more pragmatic. Salman Khurshid, the Indian minister of foreign affairs admitted this recently: “New Delhi must accept the reality of the Chinese presence in many sectors previously considered as India’s exclusive domain.”
Chinese investments are visibly geared toward improving maritime transport infrastructures. In Chittagong, China has big plans: “Our goal is to replace the port of Singapore!” says lieutenant-colonel Moazzem Hossain, head of security at the Chittagong port authority. This summer, he went to the ports of Le Havre (France) and Hamburg (Germany) to take notes. “They are very clean and organized,” he admits, “but our port here in Chittagong is getting more modern by the day and will be the next reference in South Asia.” Ninety percent of Bangladesh’s import-export passes through here, mostly textile bound for Europe and the U.S.
China’s interest for harbor projects stretches to Sittwe, in Burma, where there is the project of a gas pipeline between the port and China. There is also the brand new Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, the construction of which started during the civil war (1983-2009), when Beijing was providing weapons to Colombo against the Tamil separatists.
In the Maldives, the Chinese projects didn’t pan out but a Chinese embassy was built in the capital, Male, in 2011. Pakistan, on the other hand, has commissioned a Chinese company for the construction of its new port in Gwadar, on the Arabian Sea. Being present in every port has a purpose: it’s the famous “string of pearls” strategy, which consists in China getting exemption from port of call taxes and securing trading routes for Middle Eastern oil while asserting its commercial influence. For now, China’s involvement in Bangladesh is undeniably a positive thing, as it is a symbol of dynamic development.