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Sino-Bangladesh relations: the Return of the ancient Silk Roads

Muhammad Anisur Rahman Akanda : This article aims to explore the early historical and empirical reviews of the Sino-Bangladesh relations because of many reasons.  China rises dramatically in modern world, which will tomorrow’s biggest power, and Bangladesh is heading towards the middle-income country at the 50th anniversary of the Independence War in 2021.  Using her natural resources, this country can very well be turned into the ‘Golden Bengal’, dreamt by Bangabandhu, the father of the nation. But the Rise of China has become a great factor into the broader regional discourse. China’s rise needs to be studied by all South Asian countries for two reasons: One is led by India, and the other by almost all other Asian countries. It was during the 1970s that early projects were taken to explore the possibility of regional cooperation in South Asia by the European funding agencies (UNDP, ADB) for undertaking research. This article looks back into the early history of the Sino-Bangladesh relations.  As an old Chinese saying goes, we can always get a better understanding of the present by reviewing the past. China is one of the world’s four ancient civilizations, while Bangla is the largest wetland derived from the cognate ‘Vanga’, first mentioned in the Hindu scripture composed between 5000 BC and 500 AD, said the sources in Ministry of Information. Human habitation in this region is believed to be very old with its roots in the Paleolithic civilization dating back to about one hundred thousand years.  In ancient times, there were three Silk Roads connecting China and this region. The ancient Silk Roads were a meeting place of world cultures and religions, first for Buddhism and later for Islam. The Silk Road was originated from the silk, a fine thread produced by silk-worms, which was the symbol of the Asian civilization in the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD). At that time, the silk trading was famous for such three Silk Roads described as: (i) Northern Silk Road, (ii) Maritime Silk Road, (iii) Southern Silk Road.  Many Chinese believe that Southern Silk Road was the earliest link between China and Indian Subcontinent via Myanmar. All routes led to the same place ‘Pundravardhana’, a kingdom on the bank of the Brahmaputra River in Bangladesh, which was recorded in the geography chapters of the New Book of Tang edited (1044-1060). It was a big bridge for cultural, scientific and business exchanges between China and Indian Subcontinent. Knowledge of astronomy, calendar, mathematics, architecture, painting, sculpture and geography were introduced with Buddhism from India to China in the year 2BC.  It was an original passage through which, some of the ancestors of minorities in Northeast and Southeast Bangladesh came from Sichuan, Yunnan, Tibet and Mongolia.  Chinese monks (Yijing, Xuanzang) traveled to Buddhist monasteries in northern Bangladesh between 5th and 7th centuries to acquire knowledge. With the maritime Silk Road, Royal Bengal tigers, elephants, boats and other gifts were sent from Bangla to China during the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368).  The Sino-Bangla contacts were increased to a great extent during China’s Ming Dynasty from the 14th to the 17th Century. It was the final glory of Sino-Bangla contacts, which was not only about protocol but also giving gifts. In 1414, a sensation was created in China by a gift to Zhu Di from Saifuddin, son and successor of Giyasuddin. A 15th century Chinese painting showed a Bengali diplomat presenting an African giraffe to the Yongle Emperor. Although the original picture was lost, there is a copy made in Qing Dynasty kept in China’s National Museum Shanghai today, which is a historic evidence of Sino-Bangla friendly contacts. The works of Chinese scholars (Ma Huan, Fei Xin & Gong Zhen) unfold before us a clear historical picture of the Sino-Bangla contacts for over two thousand years. The Buddhist Pala dynasty ruled this region for four hundred years commonly referred to as the `Golden Age of Bengal’.  The contacts between the two countries continued and almost stopped as colonists entered Bangla in 1757. After the Indian subcontinent separation in 1947, the Bengali nationalist leaders became the big visitors and supporters of China. Chairman Mao maintained a close relationship with Bhashani for his socialist leanings. Suhrawardy, the Prime Minister of Pakistan was the first Pakistani leader to pay a state visit to the PRC in 1957. Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai paid several visits to East Pakistan in the 1950s and 1960s. Sheikh Mujib, one of the leaders of East Pakistan visited China twice and formed close friendship with Chairman Mao and other Chinese leaders, which is a solid foundation for the establishment of modern diplomatic ties between the two countries in the October 1975. In the early 21th century, Xi Jinping, 63, the President of China and General Secretary of the Communist Party, wants to revive the ancient Silk Road in large parts along the old trade route. It marks the return of a legend, having linguistic and historical references to “yi dai yi lu,” (a belt, a road). It is a gigantic project covering about 60 countries and half of population in the world. That’s why, China wants to expand trade route and develop infrastructures globally. In September 2013, President Xi Jinping declared the concept of “one belt one road” in Kazakhstan. In order to finance the project, China has established the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), avoiding the wills of Washington, World Bank (WB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF). In June 2015, the 57 countries, including France, Great Britain and Germany, signed the charter of the AIIB. The western media reports that China hosts Silk Road summit in shadow of North Korea missile in 2017, asking the question: What is Beijing trying to achieve with its Silk Road plan?  Beijing has already deployed officials to materialize the major projects in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. With those projects, the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road will connect China with Southeast Asian countries, Africa and Europe.  The project will show a strategic Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean and the Asian region, creating strategic space that naturally exists for other countries including the US and Russia. In the geographical location, the Belt is an overland network bringing together China, Central Asia, Russia and Europe; linking China with the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea, and also connecting China with South Asia and the Indian Ocean.  Alternatively, the Road is a maritime network designed to link China’s coast to Europe through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean in one route, and China’s coast to the South Pacific through the South China Sea in another.  In an ideal scenario, the new Silk Road can become the biggest economic trade route since the Marshall Plan, with which the United States helped Germany get back on its feet after World War II.  Russian President Vladimir Putin believes that Beijing aims to solidify its dominant political position with the Silk Road plan that Iran and Turkey strongly support. The first direct train from China arrived in Tehran in the February 2016. Bangladesh and China have also the prospect to build the 900 km Kunming Highway linking Chittagong with Kunming through Myanmar to facilitate greater trade.  This confidence can be seen in the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM), which was initiated by China to expand its Yunnan region to the South Asia.  The most advanced southern countries (China, India, Brazil, Russia and South Africa) are advocating for south to south cooperation with their foreign aids. Confucian belief has influence on Chinese foreign aid policy, although there is a fundamental difference between the rise of north and rise of south. The South-South cooperation is termed as the rise of India and China as a southern economic power in less than 20 years, as fast as that during the Industrial Revolution in Europe and North America‖.  Confucius’s main goal of the government is to achieve a world of peace and harmony.  China develops this relationship with its recipient country in a friend to friend manner. In China’s white paper (2011) it is named as economic aid instead of simply aid.  This study considers only two Asian countries, Bangladesh and China, which have many years and centuries; many problems both have facing in the 21th century. The most important problem is the language barriers of the two countries, causing the difficulties to transfer knowledge and technology from China to Bangladesh.   China, a rising global power, is only 100 miles away from Bangladesh, separated by the Himalayas Mountain. Bangladesh and China have been maintaining good relations since ancient times. This historical relation was greatly enriched by the contributions of the greatest scholars namely Fa Xian, Xuan Zang, Atish Dipankar and Zheng He.  China was founded in 1949 and her own needs were finally summed up in 1978 by Deng Xiaoping, the architect of the country. The last four decades was a critical period for Chinese people at national and international levels, with whom, Bangladesh is going ahead with the spirit of the modern diplomatic ties termed as ‘old tested friendship’.  It is a tragic tale when Bangladesh got independence in 1971, although China opposed against independence due to close relations with India, USSR and China-Pakistan-US axis. In 1972 China used its veto power against Bangladesh’s admission in the United Nations.  The emergence of establishing diplomatic ties between Bangladesh and China in the October 1975 is widely seen as a reflection against the limited and limiting options of the left-right duality in both countries. When democracy returned to Bangladesh in 1991, the relations between two remained strong as over.  According to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, China has always maintained friendly relations towards Bangladesh as well as two major political parties. Their relation is broadly defined as a time-tested, all weather friendship. They are now having good relations to adaptation.  Climate change is one of the biggest threats to both countries; therefore, both need to share their adaptation lessons and experiences as well as useful tools, methods and technologies.  According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, during the periods (1983-2015), both countries have had the 70 Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) that is recognized by both.  At present, Bangladesh is adopting a Look East policy as an important characteristic of its foreign policy. In October 2016, Chinese President Xi Jingping visited Bangladesh and promised to continue Chinese support for development. Bangladesh and China have finalized 28 projects in the October 2016. Apart from this, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina attended the opening ceremony of the Second China-South Asia Expo at Kunming in Yunnan Province on 4 June 2014.   The Sino-Bangladesh relations must develop more if the Media discourse reflects the citizens of Bangladesh and China with special articles and features on culture and civilization. In the past, the Bangladeshi media covered the present Bangladesh, the Indian states of West Bengal and parts of Orissa and Assam under the East India Company (until 1858) and thereafter under the direct British rule. At present, it covers the whole world, although there are still reasonable restrictions. The country’s media sector is growing, but journalism remains a risk business. Bangladeshi media is ranked 144th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index 2016. Despite restrictions in the mass media, Reuter Telegram Company (founded in 1851) is one of the oldest news agencies in the world, had its branches in different parts of British India including Bangladesh. The Associated Press of Pakistan (APP) was the first news agency to operate in Pakistan in September 1949. In 1972 the APP was transformed into the BSS, which is originally connected both with the world agencies (AP & AFP, UPI  & Reuters) and the 40 national news agencies (Xinhua, PTI, TASS) , who have representations in Bangladesh in the shape of stringers. The Mass media can promote the diplomatic ties among the countries of the world through the media discourse, because it can cover big amount of people within a short period of time.  It can easily influence the mind of people through photos, video and comments collecting news from local, national and world sources. The mass media get foreign news through satellite from the World and news agencies. The mass media changes society towards the regional relations over the past 166 years among the Bangladeshi and the Chinese, who are the audiences for the topic though it is a field of political science and global studies. A few scholarly books have been written by Bangladeshi and Indian scholars in English, who have adopted the realist approach to study the Sino-Bangladesh relations stressing strategic and economic factors.  The research on the Sino-Bangladesh and the ancient silk roads has been neglected in the country for a long time. Basically, it is politically related with the term, International Relations (IR) dated from the time of the Greek historian Thucydides, who is considered to be the founding father of the realist school of political philosophy.  Some social scholars discuss about South Asian countries’ economic relations with China.  In line with the regional relations, Ahmed’s (2013) Bangladesh-China Relations shows economic, strategic and defense factors. Uddin and Bhuiyan (2010) show the Sino-Bangladesh relations as an appraisal. Haider (2006) and Rasid (2010) discusses about Bangladesh relations with India, Pakistan, US, USSR, China and the Muslim World at the dawn of the 21th century.

 

Muhammad Anisur Rahman Akanda

PhD researcher (Id-15860025)

Shanghai University, China

Email: marakanda123@gmail.com

 

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