On 8 December 2022, outgoing Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh Li Jiming made a bold prediction: He hoped that the repatriation of displaced Rohingyas living in Bangladesh would begin in 2023.
The ambassador made the statement while paying a courtesy call on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at the Gono Bhaban.
During the visit, PM Hasina said Bangladesh had sheltered the Rohingyas on humanitarian grounds when they began to flee Myanmar amid a military crackdown in August 2017. But it was time for the Myanmar nationals to go back to the country.
A few months before the visit by the Chinese ambassador, PM Hasina had once again brought the issue of the Rohingya crisis in front of an international audience.
Speaking at a high-level side event on the Rohingya crisis held at Lotte Palace New York Hotel in September, Sheikh Hasina asked the world community to intervene in the proceedings before the International Court of Justice, International Criminal Court and national courts, including supporting the Gambia in the ICJ, in order to enforce international law and #strengthen the fight against human rights violations in Myanmar.
She also drew their attention to the economic costs of hosting such a large population: a staggering $1.22 billion a year for 1.2 million Rohingyas.
The international community had always maintained that forced rehabilitation wasn't an option. Any repatriation had to be safe and dignified.
China and Russia, however, had always been against any heavy-handed method.
When the UN general assembly has urged Myanmar to end a military campaign against Muslim Rohingyas and called for the appointment of a UN special envoy, these two, alongside other regional countries, registered their opposition.
Talks had gone on about the issue since 2017, but little headway was made.
By now, the Rohingya crisis wasn't an issue unique to just Bangladesh. It had spread to many different countries, including India, Malaysia and even Saudi Arabia.
While many promises had been made to hold Myanmar accountable for its pledge to conduct the repatriation, nothing visible was done.
The Chinese ambassador's visit with the PM, however, led to a flurry of activities, speaking to a renewed effort.
The big brother
With interlinked histories, it was no surprise when China backed Myanmar during the UN Security Council (UNSC) meeting on securing condemnation about the military takeover in Myanmar.
The Chinese have been building a strong ally for Myanmar, a country it considers key to ensuring its influence on South East Asia.
Earlier, it had blocked UNSC's move to take action against Myanmar on charge of committing atrocities against the Rohingyas by its army and other security forces in 2017.
Even when condemnation was pouring in from across the globe against the Myanmar army's takeover, Beijing termed it as Myanmar's "internal issue".
China repeatedly came to Myanmar's aid. Instead of sanctions and force, it suggested its own recipe: bilateral discussion between Dhaka and Naypyidaw, Myanmar's new capital setun up by the military junta regime.
This wasn't the first deal of its sort. In November 2017, Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an initial deal for the possible repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled violence in Rakhine state.
This came to nothing.
The UNSC was a stronger approach, but China was poised to block anything that undermined its own strategy.
The former Chinese ambassador in Dhaka in October 2017 hoped for a peaceful resolution to the crisis soon. He also said, "We hope our two brothers will sit down and solve this problem. I did see that there's some visible progress in terms of discussion."
In April the same year, Chinese special envoy Sun Guoxiang, who visited Dhaka, urged Bangladesh to resolve the row with Myanmar bilaterally. He also said Beijing stood ready to help in the matter. The envoy urged Bangladesh not to internationalise the issue.
Six months down the line the special envoy visited Dhaka again with the same messages.
In the meantime, China continued to oppose foreign interference in Myanmar.
Its policy made the UNSC unable to take any action against the Myanmar military although the forces have been accused of conducting ethnic cleansing on the Rohingya.
The Chinese recipe wasn't a hit. But if it wasn't a Peking Duck being prepared, then only the goose could be cooked.
The latest changeover in power in Myanmar, as the military junta returned, made the future of Rohingya repatriation even bleaker.
The Bangladesh foreign minister, in his immediate reaction, termed the changeover as a new major concern for repatriation.
But there is a change in the winds.
A Peking Duck is a dish from Beijing, which has been a favourite since the Imperial era.
The meat is characterised by its thin, crispy skin, with authentic versions of the dish serving mostly the skin and little meat, sliced in front of the diners by the cook.
The making of this duck is an arduous process, fast in a way, but laborious, involving many steps.
Each step is geared towards attaining perfection. This is another side of the Chinese recipe.
Following the Chinese ambassador's meeting with PM Hasina, a few other stones were unturned.
In March this year, Myanmar arranged a visit for the ambassadors or consul generals of 11 countries -- Bangladesh, India, China and eight Asean countries -- to Rakhine.
They visited different places, including Nakhua Reception Center opposite Teknaf and a nearby village, an internal displacement camp in Sittwe and another internal displacement camp in Chakto region.
They observed that the security situation in Rakhine was now stable and repatriation was favourable.
A consensus on the solution had also been reached between India, China and other Asean countries.
A pilot project was also mulled right before monsoon. This pilot would be a soft launch of the rehabilitation process and any issues can be worked out.
Following the trip, a few days later, the new Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh Yao Wen hoped that the first batch of displaced Rohingya would be repatriated to Myanmar soon while China continued its role as mediator to resolve the crisis, reports news agency BSS.
"Hopefully on the joint efforts of all the parties, hopefully these first batch of right issues could take place very soon," he told a Spring Dialogue with journalists at the Chinese Embassy.
A month later, Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen held a tripartite meeting in Kunming with representatives from China and Myanmar yesterday.
The meeting was not publicised, but sources said the agenda was to start rehabilitation before monsoon.
Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen did not respond when he was asked about the, but a source said it was to discuss a plan to repatriate some 1,000 Rohingyas to Rakhine State before setting the next course of action.
Today, a delegation of 20 Rohingyas and seven Bangladeshi officials went to Rakhine State to take stock of the situation.
The visit will determine when and how the rehabilitation is to take place. With years of stalling, the quick tectonic shift in talks has once again brought the Rohingya rehabilitation to light.
The Chinese recipe has now turned into a dish, ready to be served. Question is what kind of taste it will leave in everyone's mouths.