Despite the concerns of environmentalists and of the Indian authorities, the government of Bangladesh is considering a Chinese proposal to dredge and embank much of the Teesta River. The proposal is one of nine new infrastructure projects that Bangladesh has sought Chinese funding for, with others including the construction of the first phase of a new seaport and a technology park. The move has caused concern in New Delhi, which has had a long-standing dispute with Bangladesh over the river.
Bangladesh has experienced significantly reduced levels in the Teesta, threatening the livelihoods of around 21 million people on the Bangladeshi side. The drop is largely due to activity such as irrigation and dam building on the Indian side of the river. The two countries almost reached a deal on water sharing in 2011, before India indefinitely postponed talks.
As India and China compete for influence in South Asia, both are keen to cultivate relations with Bangladesh, which boasts a strategic location, large population, markets and a strong manufacturing sector. Beijing has been especially generous in its efforts to charm Bangladesh. Seven “friendship bridges” have been built by China over the last several years and, in 2018, China became Bangladesh’s largest source of foreign direct investment, replacing India. China is now the country’s largest trading partner and has funded a number of infrastructure projects.
Meanwhile, New Delhi has not managed its relationship with Dhaka quite as adeptly. The controversial Citizenship Amendment Act has been heavily criticised in Bangladesh as stoking Hindu nationalism at the expense of India’s Muslim minority. It has also created concerns that Bangladesh could end up receiving an influx of deportees from India.
Relations between Dhaka and Beijing are currently strong, but there is no reason to assume that relations with India will have to deteriorate as a result. Bangladesh maintains strong military and intelligence ties with India, and co-operation between the two has helped to curb militancy in both countries. Dhaka’s decision to grant India the use of two of its ports has also had mutual benefits, giving India sea access to its north-east, while feeding Bangladesh’s ambitions of becoming a connectivity hub.
Amid growing tensions between the two major regional powers, Bangladesh has so far carefully balanced both Indian and Chinese interests in order to benefit from their rivalry. In China’s case, that has translated into significant economic benefits, with China ramping up investment and trade. With India, however, Bangladesh has not only seen improved economic ties but has also gained negotiating leverage that it once lacked. Fearing Chinese encroachment into a previously reliable neighbour, India has given concessions to Bangladesh that it would once have resisted making. In June, for instance, India shifted its stance on the Rohingya issue from a purely pro-Myanmar one, to a position that took into account Bangladeshi concerns, as part of a changing pattern in Indian foreign policy.
While India’s more conciliatory stance towards Bangladesh is no doubt welcome, the Teesta River issue is likely to remain intractable for the foreseeable future. Water is an issue for state governments under India’s constitution, and it was the objections of West Bengal that put an end to talks over water sharing in 2011. As no resolution is likely on India’s part, Bangladesh is likely to keep seeking China’s help to finance water management projects within its own borders.