Over the past two decades, the geopolitical landscape of the Indian Ocean has undergone a profound transformation. China once viewed the Indian Ocean as the “Far Sea” has enhanced its influence in East Asia and expanded its reach as far as Europe. India has emerged as a dominant maritime force in the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, to contain India, China has invested billions of dollars in South Asian nations, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar. This strategic manoeuvre, coupled with China’s strong presence in the South China Sea has left the Bay of Bengal as a focal point for Washington’s ambitions to assert dominance in the Indo-Pacific region.
The preceding half of the century saw the United States and its allies primarily focused on the Middle East and Africa. Their approach often involved aggressive tactics like regime changes, intimidation, and, in some instances, the elimination of perceived threats. In contrast, China adopted a “soft power” strategy in East and South Asia with non-interference in domestic affairs and economic and infrastructural developments. However, as the new century dawned, Beijing’s relations with South and East Asia began to expand and deepened significantly in line with its broader efforts to ‘Go Global’.
China’s strategic infrastructure projects, including seaports like Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and Kyauk Pyu in Myanmar, as part of the “String of Pearls” strategy mark to contain India and secure a strategic advantage in the Indo-Pacific region. China’s relations with North Korea, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bangladesh, and Myanmar have successfully counterbalanced the US and Indian geostrategic manoeuvres. Beijing forced New Delhi to devote time and resources to its neighbours rather than extend influence into East Asia. Subsequently, India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government could not substitute China’s role in its neighbours. That is why, Washington’s supremacy in the Indo-Pacific is now at stake and necessitates a more robust, action-oriented approach with the Bay of Bengal as a prime theatre to establish its hard presence.
In response, the United States has reevaluated its geostrategic approach towards the region to make its policies less about influencing the allied governments and more about engaging with people-to-people in South Asian nations. While, the United States sought to make the BJP see China through its eyes, and BJP also tried to showcase Indo-Pacific nations through its eyes. But, in the end, Washington has not gained any geopolitical leverage from India’s BJP. While the USA was engaged with countering extremist groups in South Asia and sought to increase the capability of those nations to fight against terrorism, at that time.
India’s historical ties with Russia, its non-alliance membership, and its inability to prevent the expansion of BRICS have irked the US. In the last G20 summit, India’s diplomatic manoeuvring on the Russia-Ukraine conflict further strained its relations with Washington. The unfolding events exposed India’s vulnerability when sandwiched between the Chinese and Russian blocs from all sides. Washington has dissatisfied with the BJP’s approach towards China. When Barack Obama questions India’s territorial integrity that means Washington is taking an assertive posture toward South Asia. The US-backed Canada’s accusation of the BJP government for Hardeep Singh’s murder has tarnished the diplomatic relations with the Western powers. Once India became preoccupied with domestic issues would create an opportunity for the West to destabilise Bangladesh. The US seeks to establish an independent and puppet government in Arakan to contain China’s ascent.
China is always one step ahead of the USA in Indo Indo-Pacific region. Sino-Myanmar bilateral relations are very warm, in terms of economic and military cooperation. China’s influence in Myanmar is further evident by the Rohingya crisis. China considers Rohingya Muslims as its potential threat. The China-backed military junta in Myanmar is facing widespread civil protests, armed resistance from ethnic insurgent groups, and civil defence forces backed by the National United Government (NUG). NUG has acknowledged and accepted the arms struggle of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which has a deep-rooted connection with the ISI( Pakistani espionage agency). Both NUG and ISI have strategic ties with the US. Hasina’s government stance on ARSA may not align with US expectations. The Western powers have a keen interest in the golden triangle of Bangladesh Hill track, Mizoram, and Arakan areas, which are very rich in mineral resources. So, Beijing has worked to destabilise this region with the support of the Myanmar military and the Kuki-Chin nationalist front, a banned ethno- nationalist and separatist political organisation. The strategy yields geostrategic advantages for China over India and the US.
Bangladesh and other South Asian nations find themselves at the crossroads of superpower rivalry. A crucial time is ahead for these nations. To survive this crisis, national unity and political acumen are required to navigate this turbulent era. Finally, no Superpower will go against the local populace’s support. History attests that without it.