China will offer its support to Bangladesh to develop its strategically-significant deep-sea port in Chittagong when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina arrives here on Wednesday on a five-day visit.
“China has already given a positive response to Bangladesh's requests for help in developing the port,” said an official familiar with the initial discussions in the lead-up to Ms. Hasina's visit.
The two countries are also expected to step up plans to build road and railway links from Kunming, in south-western Yunnan province, to Chittagong, which will give China greater access to the Bay of Bengal port.
Ms. Hasina is expected to spend the weekend in Kunming, where she will inspect the section of the highway that has already been completed on the Chinese side, said officials.
But top of the agenda when Ms. Hasina meets Premier Wen Jiabao on Thursday will be securing Chinese assistance to develop the $8.7-billion port in Chittagong. “It will be a great achievement if China agrees to use our Chittagong port, which we want to develop into a regional commercial hub by building a deep-sea port in the Bay of Bengal,” said Dipu Moni, Bangladesh's Foreign Minister, in Dhaka on Sunday.
Addressing possible concerns in India on China's role in developing the port and Beijing's growing ties with Bangladesh, Ms. Moni said: “It is not true that if we have good relations with India, we cannot build up a relationship with China.”
Bangladesh plans to increase the port's handling capacity three-fold by 2055, from the present 30.5 million tonnes of cargo to 100 million tonnes. Access to the port will be granted to India's north-eastern states, Nepal, Myanmar as well as to China.
“Developing the port is a very important part of China's co-operation with Bangladesh, and China is aware of its strategic significance,” said Zhao Gancheng, director of South Asia Studies at the government-supported Shanghai Institute for International Studies. “So far, the hardware is far from sufficient. But Bangladesh wants to develop the port in a more extensive way, and wants more co-operation with Chinese companies.”
China has looked to secure greater access to Indian Ocean ports ever since President Hu Jintao voiced concerns of China's “Malacca Dilemma” — the country's current dependence on the narrow Malacca Straits to secure as much as 80 per cent of its oil supplies.
In November, China began construction on a 771-km pipeline that will connect Ruili, in Yunnan, to Maday Island in Myanmar.
“While there is currently no oil pipeline running to Bangladesh, access to Chittagong will be of greater importance in the future when this infrastructure is put in place,” said Mr. Zhao. “With the development of China's transportation of goods and energy in the Indian Ocean, China will certainly continue to attach more importance to this port.”
Brigadier (retired) Arun Sahgal of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi, said China's investment in the port was just the latest of a number of “calibrated inroads” Beijing had made into the Bay of Bengal, following its earlier investments in Sittwe, Myanmar and developing oil and gas fields there.
“We can look at it as China assisting Bangladesh where it needs help, but from a geo-strategic point of view, we are certainly seeing an expanding footprint that undermines India's salience in the South Asian region,” he said.
The two countries are expected to sign at least three deals this week, including for the setting up of a fertilizer factory in Bangladesh and what will be the seventh Chinese-assisted bridge construction in the country. Chinese companies are also expected to clinch deals on oil exploration access off the coast of Bangladesh in talks on Friday.