The six-kilometre-long Padma Bridge will greatly enhance connectivity across Bangladesh and exemplifies China’s expanding soft power.
The Padma Bridge in Bangladesh, the construction of which was contracted to a subsidiary of China Railway Group, is nearing completion. The bridge will dramatically enhance connectivity across Bangladesh and lead to a more connected South Asia. The bridge’s construction has implications beyond the Bangladeshi economy, and will further portray Beijing as setting technological and construction standards in South Asia, thereby enhancing China’s soft power.
Bangladesh is a land of rivers, where seaplanes and boats are frequently used for transportation. Travelling this riverine country is notoriously onerous and time-consuming. When the final slab of the Padma Bridge was installed on 23 August, the excitement of the Bangladeshi people, who call it “Dream Bridge”, could be understood. Its 6.15-kilometre length will connect the poorer south-western region of the country to the capital, Dhaka, and travel time across the river will be cut from between seven and eight hours to approximately 10 minutes. The country’s GDP is expected to increase by 1.2% after the bridge’s completion, with that of the south-west region expected to rise by 2.3% due to the enhanced connectivity.
The Padma Bridge is the largest overseas bridge built by a Chinese contractor, and is a high-profile project of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It will enhance the lives of everyday Bangladeshis, and showcase to the globe the potential of Chinese know-how, organisation and construction capabilities.
Although the bridge largely serves the pragmatic purpose of enhancing connectivity in Bangladesh, its construction has failed to avoid political repercussions. India, Bangladesh’s big brother on three sides, makes up the lion’s share of Dhaka’s strategic calculus. The belligerent Hindu nationalism increasingly espoused by India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has the potential to pose a security threat to Muslim-majority Bangladesh. China-India relations have been decisively chilly since their clashes in the Ladakh region and Bangladesh has erred on the side of caution when opening doors to Beijing so as not to irk India.
That caution potentially informs the Bangladeshi Government’s decision to fund the bridge solely with Bangladeshi funds after the World Bank withdrew its support. The World Bank was initially meant to provide US$1.7 billion ($2.3 billion) of the estimated US$3.6 billion ($4.9 billion) needed to fund the bridge, however, corruption charges levied against Bangladeshi government officials saw the loan fall through. A campaign driven by nationalism was then launched by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to raise funds for the bridge, and it succeeded.
This was not only a laudable display of national character, but perhaps also a manoeuvre to avoid seeking funds from Beijing. Bangladeshi exposure to Chinese funds would distress India, which fervently believes that BRI projects are a form of “debt trap diplomacy” that locks smaller nations into Beijing’s orbit by producing assets that Beijing can later seize or use as political leverage if mountainous debts are not repaid. Had Dhaka approached Beijing for funding, New Delhi may have begun to worry about China’s expanding influence over its neighbour. In the event, however, Dhaka did not, and the bridge’s construction was completed without ruffling too many feathers in New Delhi.
There are also political implications for China. The Padma Bridge aids Beijing’s larger desire to deepen integration and connection with South-East Asia via Yunnan province. As economic matters came to the forefront of Chinese thinking in the late 1980s, landlocked Yunnan began to be seen as a potential bridge to South-East Asia and the Indian Ocean. Such connectivity, it was believed, would open the markets of southern China to the world and provide an alternative to the maritime choke point of the Malacca Strait. Various Chinese-led infrastructure projects, such as the Laos-China railway, have sought to make that vision a reality. Although not providing direct connection between Bangladesh and China, the Padma Bridge serves to enhance connectivity across Bangladesh and, thus, South Asia more broadly, further aiding the realisation of Beijing’s vision of a connected South-East Asia with Yunnan province as the key economic node.
Despite the above, it can be said that China does not actually have too much interest in forging closer ties with Bangladesh for strategic reasons. The Kyaukphyu port in Myanmar, part of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, leaves the idea of a Chinese port on the Bay of Bengal for access to the Indian Ocean – something Beijing earlier pursued – largely superfluous. It seems that China’s political gains from the Padma Bridge’s construction will be in the realm of soft power.
The World Bank’s bailout from the project, and China’s continued partnership, bolsters the credibility of China’s model of development; it is seen as more sensitive to local needs – in this case the need for infrastructure – and comes with less red tape and lecturing on governance standards than does aid from the West. China could be seen as a more attractive partner than the West for smaller countries in need of infrastructure. This soft power boost puts Chinese companies in a better position to win headline-making contracts. It also allows China to set construction and technical standards abroad in states that will likely require additional infrastructure and maintenance, further putting itself in a better position to win future economic opportunities.
The bridge will come into operation sometime in 2022. If all goes according to plan, it will serve as a prime example of China’s expanding soft power and increasing ability to effect change through world-beating infrastructure projects abroad. It also demonstrates how a smaller country affected by a larger power’s competition with China – in the former case, Bangladesh, and the latter, India – can still engage with Beijing and benefit from co-operation by making shrewd decisions and carefully managing relations.