The Prime Minister is touring the three countries at a time when his government is under intense pressure from the US, EU and Japan ahead of the upcoming elections. There is also pressure on freedom of expression and human rights violations. So even if these pressures could not be completely removed, what steps the Prime Minister took to reduce them, it certainly created curiosity.
The declaration published in Japan during the Prime Minister’s visit to Japan is titled ‘Japan-Bangladesh Joint Statement on Strategic Partnership’. The Declaration logically placed more emphasis on regional security and stability than economic and cultural partnerships.
It is clear from the joint statement of the two countries that the statement has a very strong stance against China. Of course, the main issues in this regard are the Indo-Pacific and the East and South China Seas, but there are also two very important issues that need to be discussed, which are quite contrary to China’s interests.
Criticism of China’s ‘Belt Road Initiative’
The second point of the joint declaration states that quality infrastructure will be created in South and Southeast Asia, which will contribute to the development of countries in the region, including Bangladesh. The two leaders agreed to ensure transparency and accountability in development financing, which would follow international law through sustainable lending in line with international standards.
Many countries around the world, including Bangladesh, have undertaken various projects to build physical infrastructure under China’s Belt Road Initiative, which is the ‘flagship project’ of China’s current President Xi Jinping. But there are very strong allegations of opacity and corruption against these projects. Moreover, it is now almost an established fact that China is putting small countries into a ‘debt trap’ by creating economically unprofitable and unnecessary projects.
Everything said about infrastructure in the joint declaration is indirectly against the Chinese project ie ‘Belt Road Initiative’. Criticizing Chinese projects and the opaque method of financing, Japan is definitely against China’s interest in getting involved in more infrastructure construction projects in Bangladesh.
Transfer of production from China
This statement refers to supply systems that are resilient to various stresses and shocks (resilient supply chains). Even during the Corona period, even after the Corona has become bearable, when the whole world has opened everything and carried out economic activities, China is still going with the ‘Zero Covid’ policy. As a result, many raw materials, intermediates and finished products produced in China are suffering from the shortage of the whole world.
After China’s accession to the World Trade Organization, China took advantage of globalization to become the world’s largest supplier. As Corona showed, being dependent on one country in this way puts the world economy at serious risk. In addition, China’s rapid rise as an economic and military power is against the interests of the West, especially the United States, and it is said to reduce economic dependence on China as much as possible.
All things considered, a supply chain that is resilient to various stresses and shocks (resilient supply chain) has emerged. For this purpose, alternative production and supply systems are being discussed in different countries outside of China. This is also directly against China’s interests.
Speech on Indo-Pacific Strategy
We will recall that before the Prime Minister’s visit to Japan, Bangladesh hastily announced the main points of its Indo-Pacific outline in a press conference organized on the visit. Apart from blaming China for creating problems in the region (which the US and the West have done) and keeping the language much softer and in some cases vague, there is virtually no difference in strategy from the US. A clear reflection of this was seen in Japan.
The very first sentence of point number 1 of the statement, following the strategy of the United States and other countries, the two Prime Ministers spoke of an open and unhindered Indo-Pacific, where the freedom and sovereignty of any country, big or small, would be guaranteed by international law norms and practices. The rule-based order that the United States and other anti-China countries talk about clearly refers to China. Because, in the world system after World War II, according to many laws and customs under the United Nations (of course with many deviations), some other countries led by China are trying to break this system.
Main subject: East and South China Seas
Before discussing this in detail, let us read exactly what is said in the fourth point of the joint statement:
Prime Minister Kishida explained the situation in the East and South China Sea to Prime Minister Hasina. The two Prime Ministers pledged to fully comply with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOSE). The two Prime Ministers reiterated their position that any unilateral attempt to undermine regional stability and the rule-based international order by escalating tensions and disrupting the status quo in the region through the use of force would be unacceptable. They emphasize the open and free movement of ships in the deep sea (Freedom of Navigation) and the safety of civil aviation by maintaining compliance with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards and recommendations and other international laws’.
Japan’s rivalry with China
The Prime Minister of Bangladesh is saying these words with the Prime Minister of a country which China considers as an enemy country since time immemorial. China has not forgotten Japan’s role with Britain during its bitter past experience of ‘Hundred Years of Humiliation’ (occupation of Taiwan, Manchuria; Nanking Massacre, etc.), but has kept this memory strong for generations. There is also a recent maritime boundary dispute between the two countries.
At the southernmost tip of Japan, in the East China Sea lie the Senkaku Islands. However, China also has a strong claim to the ownership of these islands under the control of Japan (Douyu Islands in Chinese). It is good to know that its distance from Ishigaki Island, the southernmost tip of Japan, is 170 km, and its distance from mainland China is 330 km. Even if there is no human settlement, the country that will own these islands, the country that will own the sea, is very rich in fish and mineral resources. This is the reason behind the conflicting claims about this island.
The joint statement made by the Prime Minister during his visit to Japan this year has a great impact on geopolitics and international politics. Bangladesh has never taken such a strong position against China. Only once before did the Chinese ambassador react strongly to a US call to join the Quad.
South China Sea Maritime Disputes
In the South China Sea, Vietnam, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines (also Taiwan) have maritime boundary disputes with China. The main reason for the conflict with them is that China claims 90 percent of the South China Sea based on the ‘nine dash line’ shown on a much older map of its own making. It can be seen that the countries in conflict over the borders get almost nothing of the economic area (Exclusive Economic Zone) that exists outside the sovereign sea limits (Territorial Waters).
In addition, China has taken possession of several islands in the deep area of the South China Sea (Spartaly and Paracel Islands) and built many artificial islands, in which they have also installed military installations, in order to establish ownership of the parts of the sea that are marked as international waters.
Accepting the uncles as the basis means the extreme opposition of China
Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea is 200 km from the Philippines and 600 km from China. This place was owned by the Philippines until it was taken over by China in 2012. Maritime disputes in the Philippines go to arbitration under the UNCLOS or the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. China is a signatory to this convention (in 1994), as is the Philippines. As a signatory country, China has the obligation to participate in this arbitration, but China has not participated in it. After hearings, the court ruled that many, if not all, of the Philippines’ claims were accepted.
We only need to know these two conclusions for the discussion of this column: 1. The way China claims the ownership of the South China Sea on the basis of the nine dash line is not acceptable in international law. 2. Deriving the maritime boundary on the basis of treating islands like the Spratly Islands as a single unit is not tenable. That is, China’s claims in the South China Sea have been completely canceled under UNCLOS.
The significance of the statement about the two China seas
Now we surely understand that when Bangladesh fully adheres to the unclass in the South and East China Seas, and says that efforts to unilaterally break the existing status quo through the use of force are not supportable, then it becomes a strong opposition to China’s statement. Not only that, if China uses force to take control of Taiwan in the South China Sea (which Xi Jinping has clearly said they will do if necessary), this would also be against the status quo. That is, at least according to this announcement, Bangladesh will take a stand against China in case of any such use of force.
When Bangladesh talks about open and free shipping (freedom of navigation) aviation in deep seas in the region in the joint statement, we recall one of the issues of tension between China and the US in the region. Since China does not recognize most of the South China Sea as international waters, various ships of the US Seventh Fleet pass through areas of the sea that China claims as its territorial waters to refute China’s claims. The move by the US, which has angered China, is aimed at ensuring ‘freedom of navigation’.
The joint statement made by the Prime Minister during his visit to Japan this year has a great impact on geopolitics and international politics. Bangladesh has never taken such a strong position against China. Only once before did the Chinese ambassador react strongly to a US call to join the Quad. After that, there was talk about joining the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), a program announced by the United States in the region, while China expected Bangladesh’s position against it, albeit in a diplomatic language.
In the overall situation, the important question is, did Bangladesh get ‘China’s permission’ before taking this position in the recent times, that they want to ease the Western pressure a little before the elections? Or China is preparing to show any reaction against it? If so, what will the response be and how severe will it be?