Bangladesh is a strategic ally of India, but China has been persistently keen to entice Dhaka on its side. The reason – in 2016, Bangladesh was the seventh largest natural gas producer in the Asia-Pacific region. Experts that EurAsian Times interviewed stated that the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone in the Bay of Bengal possesses one of the largest oil and gas reserves in Asia-Pacific which China has its sights on.
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Natural gas is the most important indigenous source of energy which accounts for 75 per cent of Bangladesh’s commercial energy. The country produces 833 billion cubic feet gas per year all of which is domestically consumed.
In February 2018, a MoU was sealed between Bangladesh Petroleum Exploration and Production Company and Azerbaijan’s SOCAR AQS for cooperation in the new oil and gas projects. This was regarded as an important step towards expanding the future cooperation beyond drilling of Bangladesh’s wells.
India has also shown great interest in Bangladesh’s oil industry. The two countries entered into an agreement for an oil pipeline construction early this year. According to the Hindu Business Line, the 6-km Indian leg of the one million tonne capacity pipeline will be financed by the Assam-based Numaligarh Refinery – a BPCL subsidiary.
“The remaining 130 km of pipeline will be in Bangladesh and is financed through India’s ongoing development cooperation programme. The total cost of the pipeline is pegged at Rs 360 crore.” The pipeline is scheduled to be completed in 27 months.
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The delimitation of the maritime boundary between Bangladesh and its neighbours India and Myanmar by the successive United Nations tribunals’ verdicts has enabled Dhaka to open up its waters for foreign firms to explore and exploit hydrocarbon in the Bay.
The scale of Chinese investment in Bangladesh is an evidence of Beijing’s deepening relationships with Dhaka. It is also ringing alarm bells in India, which surrounds Bangladesh on three sides and considers itself Dhaka’s natural and principal ally.
New Delhi has watched with growing unease in recent years as China has committed billions of dollars’ worth of funding to countries across the subcontinent, helping to fulfil President Xi Jinping’s plans to build a new Silk Road of global trade routes.
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The plans for Bangladesh, however, have caused even greater disquiet in New Delhi because of the strong historic links between the two countries. India helped create Bangladesh when it joined its eastern neighbour’s fight for independence from Pakistan in 1971. According to Gateway House, China has committed $31bn worth of projects in Bangladesh, making it the second-biggest recipient of money in South Asia behind Pakistan. That includes roads, railways, coal power plants and water treatment facilities.
China’s broader program of developing influence throughout Asia through trade, finance, military cooperation and soft power includes Bangladesh. Bangladesh is the world’s seventh most populous country and the only one bordering India (except Bhutan) where Chinese influence is very limited.
Moreover, Beijing has expressed interest in pushing strategic partnership with Bangladesh to new heights. China is the only country with which Bangladesh signed a defence agreement. What makes Bangladesh attractive to China is its strategic location, proximity to India, attractive seaports, substantial oil and natural gas reserves, besides viewing Bangladesh as another poor South Asian Country where Beijing can dominate via its economic prowess.